Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Sticky Webs of Belief

            This week in Polly’s kindergarten class the kids are learning about Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, and the idea of different cultures coming together to share a common space. To prepare for this activity, Polly’s teacher asked each student to create a small poster displaying what she called a ‘culture web.’ The culture web was to contain several general categories – food, language, music, etc – and the kids were to list specific examples of these things from their own lives. They were then instructed to decorate the poster with pictures of some of their examples. 
            Polly, as is her wont, dove into the exercise immediately, laying out a web structure with a box for each of the general categories at the end of each strand. Then she went about populating the web. She put pizza and hamburgers down for Food, English down for Language, Carnival of the Animals, Peter and the Wolf and BNL’s Snacktime down for Music. But then she came to a category that stumped her. Bringing her paper to me, she asked,
            “Daddy, what’s our religion?”
            When I didn’t immediately reply, she quickly pivoted.
            “Daddy, do we have a religion?”
            She asked this question simply, in much the same way she’d asked earlier if I’d ever seen a whale before.
            The straight-forward answer to this question is no. Neither Ava nor I have felt drawn to a religious environment and thus our family adheres to no specific creed. In part this is a matter of history. Ava went to Catholic schools from kindergarten until she graduated from college and remains skeptical about some of the priorities these schools taught her. I grew up going to church in sporadic bursts that led me to feel more like an outsider observing things than a participant in the rites. Our separate inclinations towards skepticism were later augmented by similar graduate educations that taught us to be wary of grand existential claims.
            That said, we do have some pretty well-established, universal beliefs regarding our place in the world. Most of these are grounded in the temporal relativism of the Golden Rule. In other words, we want to treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated. It is a simple dictate devoid of ritual and pomp, but I think it captures the best of what people of different beliefs can do for one another.
            This perspective, however, doesn’t fit within the standard set of possibilities when it comes to religion, so I told Polly to just leave that category off her web. It would be better, I figured, to say nothing than to put something like ‘none’ on there and have her subjected to the questions this might raise.

****

By coincidence this week, the school board in Montgomery County, Maryland, a suburb around Washington, DC, voted to remove all religious references from its published school calendar. This decision would have been a pretty routine and uneventful act – plenty of county school systems, including the one Polly and Pip attend, have done this over the years – except that the vote was taken in reaction to requests by members of the local Muslim community that the Eid-al-Adha holiday be included on the calendar with Christmas, Easter, Yom Kippur, Hannakuh, and the like. As such, the context of the school board’s decision made it look like board members would rather cut off their nose than include a Muslim holiday on their calendar.
I understand why the board voted the way they did. One of the fundamental ideas behind a secularism that protects the freedom of religious practice is that the state does not have any specific religion of its own. The easiest way to do this is to draw clear lines between individual and community practices which can be religious and state ones that cannot. When these overlap, the state version should take on secular, nondescript identities – Winter Break instead of Christmas Break – in order to avoid violating the principle.
There are two fundamental challenges to negotiate when taking this approach. First, the United States was created by Christians and many of the social patterns around which the institutions of government were built incorporated those cultural expectations. So, we wound up with ‘Under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance and ‘In God We Trust’ on our currency. We also ended up with government holidays taking place on Christmas and Good Friday. While efforts have been made to downplay the importance of these things given the diverse beliefs held by Americans, these efforts sometimes feel sly and hypocritical. People aren’t stupid. If you just change the name, it’s still Christmas break.
The second challenge created by this kind of secularism is that it posits that the only common ground to be found among different religious beliefs is an erasure of their beliefs whenever they come together. This negative approach to religious identity immediately puts people of different faiths at odds with one another. It implies that we cannot trust religious belief to exist in a world with other religious beliefs so all beliefs must be expunged from public practices. It is a very depressing view of the world and one that seems to exacerbate the very hostilities it seeks to overcome.
With that in mind, there is another route to secularism that the Montgomery County school board could have tried. This posits that a government can make all religious practice safe by engaging religious identities and taking the lead in spreading an understanding of them. This route would not be particularly easy. Given the reality of limited time and resources choices would have to be made about what practices or holidays merit recognition, and I imagine all sorts of odd competitions and compromises would come out of it. But this kind of negotiation becomes a significant force for education in itself. In talking about it, more people would learn that Eid-al-Adha celebrates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ismail to God and the ultimate substitution by God of a sacrificial ram in Ismail's place, and this kind of knowledge could go a long way to normalizing the presence of the broad variety of beliefs that exist in the world around us. Plus, it would challenge the state to seek common ground in good faith among those differences by accepting their value instead of denying their importance.

****


Living with difference is hard work. It requires a constant awareness that others around may not agree with our basic understandings of the world and a constant labor to figure out how to navigate among these conflicting beliefs. I don’t like that my first impulse when Polly asked about our religion was to tell her to skip it. I’d love to feel like she could go to school and talk about whatever convoluted beliefs our family holds dear without encountering a certain amount of consternation. I wonder if more institutions of state – school boards, county governments, state courts – looked toward the second route of secularism as a goal, if we would all know a bit more about each other and in turn be a bit more comfortable with all our differences. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A brief reprieve in a long week

            In the wake of reading and writing about Amy Chua, I’ve been thinking a good deal about why people have children. I wrote about this before in a post a couple of years ago, and the basic tenor of those thoughts still feel right: in this day and age, raising children is an expensive, time-consuming, and largely irrational project. We don’t need to sustain our tribe. We don’t need laborers to gather wood, pick berries, or feed the livestock. We don’t necessarily need a cadre of children to care for us when we get old (though if Social Security eventually collapses, this might change). And, with the various methods of effective birth control now available, we can fulfill and enjoy our sexual drives without the side effect of producing children.
All of this means that having children is more than ever a choice that people make (sure, in some cases that choice is made through carelessness or indifference, but that’s something of a choice nonetheless) and that this choice is largely not based on any kind of needs-based logic or economically rational thinking. Instead it is a manifestation of a will and irrational desire for experiences that cannot be economically valued. People have children in the hope of taking part in something ineffable, in something magic, as they go about the work of raising – of creating – a person. They have children in the hope that they get to have moments like one that happened for me on Thursday night.
All last week, Polly and Pip were sick. Polly stayed home from school on Monday with a fever and a cough. Pip was sent home on Thursday and spent all day Friday on the couch. We spent the whole week pumping them full of medicine and coaxing them to eat a little something at each meal. It wasn’t a horrible time – they weren’t puking and when the medicine was working they both felt okay - but it did create some extra work for us to keep everything together.
On Thursday evening after dinner, Polly and Ava went upstairs to read together in our bed while I finished up the dishes. Pip, who was feeling a touch better after being fed and medicated, drifted about the dining room and kitchen for a bit before deciding to sit down at the piano. He’s been doing some rudimentary piano lessons at school and with nothing else to do, I thought he was going to run through his practice pieces for a couple of minutes. Instead, he started idly tapping keys and playing around with the damper peddle, striking some notes and listening to them ring for a few moments before shutting them down and doing it again. I turned back toward the sink to wash the soap off some pots, just happy that he wasn’t coughing too much. I got out a towel on which to lay out the frying pan and the big cook pot so they could drip dry then scoured some cooked-on potatoes off a casserole dish.
As I pulled that dish out of the rinse water, I noticed that Pip had started playing something new. Still holding down the damper peddle, he was stringing together a series of notes with a kind of wary, walking rhythm. It was all one-handed playing, one note at a time, but the absence of the damper allowed the echo from his previous notes to build an atmosphere around the notes to come. This gave them a full, rounded, musical quality that sounded much bigger than what he was playing before.
After a few phrases using this walking rhythm, Pip increased both his pace and his volume. He started breaking the rhythm every four to six beats with a nicely timed syncopation. The notes rose and fell harder and harder, stepping up and falling back and stepping up again. Again it was very simple, but it was real. He was not just banging at the keys. He was playing something that he heard in his head and it was running on without a break or a hiccup. He was feeling the music. And it was beautiful to hear.
When he finally tapered off, slipping back down the volume while keeping the rhythm in place until the final note, I put down the last of the dishes and walked around the corner to where he sat.
“That was really nice,” I said, trying not to show too much excitement and scare him off.
He looked over and smiled in a dreamy kind of way.
“What were you imagining as you played,” I asked.
 “That was Harriet Tubman helping people escape,” he said.
“Oh,” I chuckled in surprise. Pip has had a long-running interest in Harriet Tubman and other famous African-Americans, but I had been expecting some vague response about running water or butterflies or ants crawling about.
“Did you hear them walking through the woods?” he said.
“I did.”
“Good. I’m going to play another one now.”
“Okay.”
I went back into the kitchen to tidy things up and let him play in peace. This time he again depressed the damper peddle and began playing very softly around middle C. The result was a collection of slow, twinkling sounds, like fairy dust slowly drifting through an enchanted grove. When he finished, I went back in.
“What did you play this time?” I asked.
“That was Martin Luther King dreaming before his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”
I had to keep myself from laughing at this. That Pip - tired, slightly feverish, a touch loopy from the fever reducer and cough medicine - had taken a such an idea, constructed the scene in his mind, and used it to build such an incredibly evocative soundscape was far beyond anything I would ever have expected from him at that moment. It was more than I would have really expected at any moment. In the quiet of that evening with the darkness outside barely held at bay by the lamp over the piano, it felt downright mysterious.

Pip played two more pieces before getting tired, one about Rosa Parks and the other about George Washington crossing the Delaware. While he played, I found a chair in a corner and just sat down to listen. It was a very bright spot in what was an otherwise long week. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Hunting the Tiger - part two

Note: This is the second part of a two-part reflection on Amy Chua’s book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The first part can be found here.


  1. So with all that is right with the intellectual structure of Chua’s parenting ideology, where is the “horrible” moment? Where is the failure to learn from? At a visceral level, it comes from the meanness with which she pursues these principles. It just feels wrong to yell at and insult your children in the way she describes doing. It’s abusive. It’s inhuman. It’s an exercise of power and domination that is uncomfortable to witness and debilitating to be a part of.
  2. One of the things that is frustrating to me about Chua’s book is that we don’t get to see what her rough treatment really does to her children. We get some glimpse of how they feel near the end of Chua’s narrative - both when her younger daughter finally revolts, giving up the instrument she loves playing and with it her hard won positions as concert master in the youth orchestra and as a pupil with a prestigious teacher, in order to get out from under her mother’s pressure and when Chua’s older daughter describes how isolated and lonely she feels because she literally runs home from school each day to practice so as not to anger her mother. But I want to know more about what Chua’s treatment has meant to their lives. Do they lash out at others the way their mother does at them? Do they have any close friends? Are they sullen when they are out of the house or happy? Who else is important in shaping their lives? Chua only really talks about them in two places – at practice and on stage. Maybe that’s the only place we really see our children once they are school-aged, but I still want to know what’s happening out of her sight. What kind of work is taking place when Chua is not around?
  3. The second failure of Chua’s parenting comes from her competitiveness. Chua’s drive her ambition, overwhelms everything else when it comes to her children. In this she is a Tragic figure in the grand literary sense where a character epitomizes a principle and cannot relinquish that principle regardless of the human consequences. She is like Bazarov in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons or Javert in Hugo’s Les Miserables, both of whom cause themselves incredible misery rather than admit that their principle does not always hold true. They would rather be right than happy. Or they don’t know how to be anything else. Chua’s description of herself follows the same prescription. She talks about how hard it is to keep her children going, how miserable she feels, how she’s come to love the dogs that she has stopped trying to train and how she can’t do this with her children. She is stuck in the kind of tragic condition that Sophocles and Euripides use to write plays about.
  4. This may be part of my fascination with her as well. The Tragic figure usually ends the story miserable, alone, and/or dead. There is a catharsis in that resolution, one that allows the audience to see the consequences of the character’s idealism. Either that or the character finally has a change of heart and everyone lives happily ever after. Chua doesn’t really give us either. She tells the story as if, following her sister’s medical difficulties and her younger daughter’s revolt, she has experienced a change of heart. But after she tells of all the surreptitious effort she’s putting in to guide and coach her younger daughter’s efforts at tennis, that change remains uncertain. The final conclusion of the story remains up in the air.
  5. I wonder what effect Chua’s intellectual environment has had in creating her attitude toward her children. She was educated in, and continues to exist in, the world of elite business schools. In that world, competition – the scoreboard of profit and loss – is the one axiomatic truth. Everything is judged according that scoreboard. Every action contributes to winning or losing, adding value or reducing it. It has to be hard for someone engulfed in such an environment to imagine a world where that scoreboard doesn’t exist or to see the ineffable value in things that cannot be scored.
  6. Chua demonstrates her difficulty with this in the way she approaches musical choices for her children. When a piano teacher suggests a delicate piece by Prokofiev, Chua cannot see its value. It doesn’t look hard enough to her. It doesn’t possess enough technical difficulty for her taste. That it is an excellent piece for her daughter to perform is something she only comes to understand later.
  7. I don’t know what this perspective on the world means for her children. Chua is pushing her daughters to figure out all the technical edges to a piece and practice them until they are honed to a razor sharpness. This is all well and good, but there is an absence of humanity in her training that makes it feel empty. They are not working to create things that make the world a better place. They are not learning to use these talents to help people or bring life to new ideas. Chua’s goal isn’t even perfection. It’s impressing others.  It’s winning the competition. It’s beating everyone else.
  8. From time to time I listen to how professional athletes talk about what it feels like to play a sport at the highest level and what drives them to continue in the face of injuries, losses, and disappointments. What has always been interesting to me about these is they tend to talk about motivation in terms of fear, fear of failure, fear of losing, fear of letting others down, fear of losing their place. Winning is not really a celebration. It’s a relief. It is the temporary release from fear.
  9. It feels to me like this is the fear Chua lives with and is the fear she is teaching her children. It pervades every endeavor of her life and seems to warp her interactions with the rest of the world.
  10. Perhaps this is the trade-off that comes with pursuing the peak of the mountain. You may get the view but only while suffering through a tremendous amount of fear. It seems like a miserable way to live a life.
  11. I think this is the lesson I’m willing to draw from Chua’s account. So much of what we think of as achievement is built upon extended misery and dysfunction. This is not the world I want my children to live in. I want them to be happy. I want them to feel good about their world and their place in it. I certainly want them to know how to work hard for something, but I also want them to know how to appreciate where they are and who they are with. I want them to value people as more than opponents to be beaten. Chua’s Tiger mothering does not do that. She practices parental love as an input of time and effort, a matter of sacrifice and discipline. But it is also a matter of showing children how to respect and appreciate the beauty of their world. Without a balance amongst all these factors, I don’t see how our children can grow up to be the adults we want them to be.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Hunting the Tiger

Note: I ran out of time to finish up everything I wanted to write for this, so I decided to split it into two. I’ll finish up part two for next week.


            Why are you reading that book written by that horrible mom? – Ava

            In graduate school we read lots of papers examining the trends and phases of social science investigation. Most of these were considered to be some of the best pieces of scholarship written during their various time periods. We would read them, pick them apart, and discuss their strengths and flaws. What I always found interesting was how subtle or innocuous so many of the ideas we were criticizing appeared at first. They often felt like small oversights or just ill-defined thoughts that could have used more attention. Then as we would talk further about them, the larger consequences of these perspectives would become clearer.
            With that thought in mind, I always thought it would be an interesting idea to read some of the worst papers of an era, the papers that were so blatantly hackneyed and grossly off-track that it was easy to see how concepts could go awry when their long-range consequences are not well understood. I always felt it would give us another angle of insight into the topics we were studying, insight into how things fall apart. This insight would be useful in thinking more broadly about our own arguments and the different ways we should question, challenge, and bolster them. It’s important to know both what you want to be and what you do not.
            I find this strategy to be a useful approach to parenting as well. I watch other parents a good deal, looking to see what works for them and what does not. Oftentimes this consists of watching a situation play out poorly between a parent and a child and then paying regular attention to them over the coming days to see if I can identify the source of the problem.
            It was in that spirit that I recently picked up Amy Chua’s parenting memoir, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. You may remember when this came out a couple of years ago because Chua created a big stink by publishing an excerpt in the Wall Street Journal that essential called American (or really white, upper class) parents wussies. It set everyone on fire and provided a good month’s worth of material for people like me to write about (I wrote this about her soon after). Interestingly, I, like many people I imagine, never got around to reading the book itself. The Wall Street Journal excerpt sufficiently established her position, and I didn’t feel inclined to support her or her publisher with my money.
At the same time, I’ve always felt that not reading the book itself to be something of a disservice. Perhaps there was more sophistication in her full text than was revealed in the Journal excerpt. As such, about a month ago, I checked it out of the library. It took me about a week of light reading to finish, but a good bit longer to clear my head. I still don’t yet have a single, coherent take. Instead, I’m left trying to configure all these different and conflicting ideas.

  1. First off, let’s do a quick summary. The book basically tells the story of how Chua worked to turn her two daughters into professionally skilled, concert musicians. Using a range of tactics that she characterizes as ‘Tiger Mother’ parenting, she maniacally worked her older daughter on the piano and younger daughter on the violin, demanding long hours of practice and a complete commitment to mastering their instruments. She spent tons of money on elite teachers and sought out intensely competitive environments to test them. She berated them when they complained and celebrated them when they succeeded. The older daughter eventually won a piano competition and got to play a concert at Carneige Hall in New York City. The younger daughter fought back against her mother and at thirteen quit the violin to play tennis instead.

  1. Now before going any further let’s just dispense with the whole Tiger Mom premise as it’s just as xenophobic, racist, and tone deaf as the Wall Street Journal essay made it sound. Just because a representative of a historically disempowered population is the one flipping the stereotypes around doesn’t make blatant insults and ridiculous presumptions any less offensive. I would have expected better of a professor at an Ivy League school. At the same time, the best way to sell anything is to grab attention, and no one gets attention by being nice. After reading the book, I don’t think Chua is actually that savvy, but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. Either way, the book is much easier to engage if we just throw the gross ‘Chinese parenting’ statements out the window and just approach Chua as a parent with her own particular style.

  1. Chua possesses a kind of frantic charisma that must be invigorating in short bursts but has to be exhausting over time. Her personal style contains a mixture of high-energy OCD competitiveness and a blunt, shock-and-awe approach to social interactions. I got the feeling she likes playing the ridiculous autocrat as it makes her different and unusual in her social circles. She mentioned more than once describing one of her tirades to people at a party and having the host try unsuccessfully to soften her story. In many respects, this personality trait may be her biggest motivation for writing this book. Chua seems to get a kick out of rustling people’s feathers when it comes to the ways children should be raised.

  1. For her xenophobia and manic personality quirks, Chua’s main premise in the book is correct: that you can get kids to do incredible things if you push them hard enough. They will learn to perform intricate musical pieces. They will dribble cleanly with either hand. They will read and write and doing mathematics at levels far beyond the general public’s level of expectation. But, this requires that the parent/coach/guiding adult impose their will upon the child. The kind of skill necessary to do any of these things well enough to win prizes and compete at the highest levels does not come to a child spontaneously. It is developed through intensely focused teaching and hours and hours of repetitive and monotonous practice. Children may have some talent, but it takes the ferocious will of the parent to develop that talent into world-class skill.

  1. Chua is also right that most parents don’t possess this will or are hesitant to subject their children to such training. These children will not achieve as much as the children who are pushed.

  1. Chua is also right on one more thing: It is more fun to do something when you can do it well. Usually I tend to think of this as going the other way in that “I like to do this so I will do it enough to get good at it.” However, this is not generally how it works. People like doing things that make them feel good. Early success at something often breeds a willingness to do the work necessary to get more success. Early failure often leads to disinterest. This is, of course, not writ in stone but it is a reasonable enough rule.


More to come next week…

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.