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Sunday, May 21, 2017

Censoring is Not Protecting: a Meandering Case for Letting Your Kids Read What They Want

I have a friend who talks about her affection for a woman known as "the Culture Lady" in her community. This is someone who knows what theater, operas, and concerts are the ones to see and why, and brings kids or friends to these events.

I tend to wince when someone says "Culture lady" because to me, art isn't "culture." It's breath and air and oxygen, respite and escape, and the word "culture" almost diminishes it.

But I get what my friend is talking about. She wants art to matter more than it does, and she hopes people will take it seriously. Or at least get engaged with it.

That's turning out to be a tall order in our phone-obsessed, technology-driven world. But if we are going to respect art, we need to respect people's right to view it, interpret it, and become moved or angered or excited, as the case may be.

My mother was strict in many ways, but liberal in what she allowed me to read or see, so films or books considered "adult" were not forbidden to me. I remember my sister was reading a book about a prostitute and no one hid the book when I was around.

Naturally I tried reading my sister's book, though I was only 8 and a lot of it was over my head. I don't think I finished the book or even read most of it. But just skimming through made me feel like the world was a bit wider and more open to me. And I liked that feeling.

That's probably why I tried to be liberal with what I let my son read as well. I say this because again, art isn't "culture" to me. It's everything. And I want my son to be able to live and breathe in artistic waters as freely as possible.

Plus, my son had (has) lots of other things vying for his attention, such as TV and video games. So I felt if I censored his book choices, I'd be cutting out a lot of his reading time.

I know there are people who don't agree and who are very committed to sharing only "age appropriate" books or films with their kids. I tried to stay away from violent films (but good luck if you're a parent of a ten-year-old.) If I have to choose, I'd say it's better if your kid reads adult books instead of adult films. 

Regardless of what my son was reading or seeing, what I always tried to do was explain the artist's intent and talk about it. I guess I did that because I think it's important to support reading. And I'm happy to see that today, my son is reading a lot of what might be called "difficult" or "classical" books that I never would have thought he'd like.

Your thoughts on this are welcome, of course! And here's some other viewpoints on this subject.

Do you Censor Your Kids' Reading Material?

Kids Should Read Whatever They Want, Whenever They Want

Should You Censor What Your Kids Read?

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Evening and Morning: My Best Mother's Day

Since it's Mother's Day and all... I thought it might be fun to remember the very first day I turned into a mom.

It was June; closer to Father's than Mother's Day, but both had passed. I knew something was up about four in the afternoon. It was June, hot and sunny, and I was getting cramps like you do when you have a period, only these were much more insistent, and didn't seem to let up.

I think I must have called the doctor, who told me to wait until the cramps, aka pains, were just a few minutes apart (three? four? Who can remember this stuff)? Eventually (maybe around dinner time?) Josh's dad and I went to the hospital, and the nurse on duty met us there. It turned out she was pretty young and this was only her third time attending someone in labor.

Yes, it did make me a little nervous, but she was so friendly and warm I decided quickly this was the best possible nurse I could have, and started out by giving her lots of chocolate. (Tip: I was told to bring chocolate for the nurses, and can't recommend it highly enough.)

Most of what I remember is hanging out in one of those hospital beds in a pretty nice room. The idea was that I'd be able to have the baby right there, without having to go into a delivery room.

 I also remember asking Josh's dad to crank the bed up and then crank it down at least three thousand times.We also played music (more rock than classical) and after a while, the pain became more persistent and the breathing exercises they give you in class weren't helping much.

The nurse described a drug that "wouldn't change the pains, but would make it so you don't care any more." I thought that sounded good and we tried it, and I do remember it working for a good long time.

At one point my "good" nurse left for a little while and a second arrived, much more stern and demanding. She probably needed them, but did not receive any chocolates.

As we got closer to midnight, I could see Josh's father's arm was getting tired of cranking and I was starting to experience serious pain. I think we had a monitor by then and I could hear my son's heartbeat, going harder and faster every once in a while. It seemed to me he wanted to get born very badly, but I couldn't figure out how to help him.

Our doctor was called. It turned out my dear friend's father was on duty, which turned out to be wonderful - as by then I really needed a friend. He came at about 11:15 and immediately criticized Josh's dad for his choice of music (which in fact was my choice). The doctor then determined that a membrane needed jabbing in order for the water to break, and that's what he did.

Within minutes, it seemed, things were rolling, and they asked me if we could go to the labor room to make sure everything went the way we wanted. Of course we all said yes, and at two minutes after midnight, our son was born.

Joshua Gabriel entered the world with great determination and no wailing. The nurses told me to open my eyes and I thought that whatever else I did, I had to remember this moment--the face and body swimming up toward the light, a tiny bruise on his upper lip, thinking how did that happen, and never finding out.

My doctor did some weighing and measuring and told us Josh got a 9.9 on his Apgar scale, which sounded lucky, whatever it meant. They wrapped him up and handed him to his dad, who sang a song to him. And because it was two minutes after midnight on a Saturday morning, his dad informed us it was a magical time because Jewish tradition says this is the time when the Female Spirit of God (Shek-hina) is supposed to be hovering.

I thanked her, silently, for showing up, and I have to say I've called on her more than once in the years since. Last night I was talking to Josh, and he said he thought maybe the Spirit was responsible for his deciding to be a cantor when he grew up.

Being a writer, I'd love to think so. But what I do know is the best mother's day I ever had was the day I became a mother. Because, in a way, a new version of yourself gets born along with your child. A different window into seeing things you'd only seen one way flies open. And all of a sudden, new dimensions and layers appear.

The funny thing is I hadn't been sure I wanted to be a mom, and Josh's dad had kinda-sorta talked me into it. But I think that's why I feel so lucky and blessed to have had the opportunity. And I pray everyone who wants a child can have the opportunity, too.

Happy Mother's Day.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Kids and Clothes: Who Decides?

Do you stand in front of your closet fitfully in the morning, trying to decide what to wear? If you decided the night before, do you change your mind once you see yourself in the mirror?

Not every day, but yes, I have done this and still do it. I was fortunate in some ways to have a son because his peers (if not him) were less interested in being supremely fashionable at every moment. Not meaning to be sexist here, but having been a girl in middle school, I remember some pretty awful times when my clothes (and I) were judged harshly.

Girls can be brutal about this sort of thing. On the other hand, my son had extremely strong opinions about what he should wear and what sort of hair cut he needed. At one point, he badgered me about getting tips of his dark hair frosted blonde, and after a month or so I consented. "It looked terrible. Why did you let me do that?" he asked recently, after looking at an old picture of himself.

"So you'd leave me alone," I replied. The truth is, I find dressing myself so exhausting, I have barely any brain space to dress anyone else.

Meanwhile, my son also tried an earring at one point,  due to the example of an older stepbrother at his father's house. My husband complained that he didn't like hearing his wife and son discussing earring choices. I can't really say I blame him, because I had hoped having a son would buy us tickets into a fashionista-free zone. No such luck.

On the other hand, I am still convinced a girl would have been worse--really much worse, based on my own experience. My middle-school peers had strict rules about where you were supposed to buy your clothes, and they were often far more expensive than I could afford.

In high school, I found ways around that by wearing jeans, and to be fair, my high school was a LOT cooler than my middle school by virtue of being a LOT more diverse. It gave me the basis for a different way of looking at things, and a window into the kind of Beat Generation community I created in The Beat on Ruby's Street.

Right now, though, I'm thinking about how we choose clothes for our kids. I learned to always bring my son with me to pick out whatever he needed, whether it was jeans, shorts, bathing suits or winter coats. If I didn't, I ended up bringing the clothes back because he refused to wear them. So unless you are part of a religious community where dress codes are prescribed, (and maybe then too?) I think it's a good idea to at least consult them about what they wear.

I'm not saying they have to have the final decision. If you feel uncomfortable with something your kid chooses, tell them. If they balk, ask them who pays for their clothes (and remind them it's you, if necessary.) If you and your spouse or ex-spouse don't agree, then you need to hash it out and ask your kid why he or she is making the choice to wear the outfit in question.

All in all, though, I think kids mostly figure out a middle-ground of dressing that isn't too extreme, but you need to give them some of your hard-earned wisdom and guidance (whether they're listening nor not). 

Because it IS our job as parents to make sure we're involved in their decisions. Otherwise, you're likely to wind up with an eleven year old who wears earrings and dyes his hair.

Oops. Well. At least his hair was never purple.

For more on this topic, I found these posts:

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Summer Activities No Substitute for Vacation Time

These days, spring makes me think of greenery coming back to the frozen northland of the Upper Midwest, and the smell of lilacs in my neighborhood. But there was a time when spring also made me realize I needed to scramble to find summer activities for when my son wasn't in school.

There was a summer day camp for about seven or eight weeks, but the surrounding weeks were still needing to be filled up--unless we could all manage a vacation, but that would only last one week.
So, the odyssey began--and so did my research.

I found a range of summer activities at the local science museum (starting at 8 a.m., how did I ever get up that early?!) I also an old-fashioned schoolhouse experience for a week (that was probably a lot more fun that it might have been in the 1800s) and a week of theater activities. The trick was to find new and untried offerings every summer, or barring that, things my son really liked that were at least varied every year.

Meanwhile, I wished my husband and I had more time off in summer so we could have traveled more as a family. We mostly went to my husband's family cabin on the shore of Lake Superior and I know Josh loved it there, but I would have loved to have different kinds of trips and adventures.

We did get to the Black Hills one year for about a week, and collected the kind of stories I hope my son still remembers. We found a place called Cosmos that had some weirdly warped atmosphere so you could actually sit on the wall and find a lot of other gravitational oddities. We also saw the Crazy Horse monument and the Badlands along with a lot of wild life and parks.

I think taking family vacations gives you time to learn a little more about each other than you do in your every day lives. Because being with your family is a whole lot more fun than finding summer activities for just one of you. Rushing your kid to a summer "camp" or "class" and rushing to work yourself means one more thing you have to do. And shouldn't summer be about what you DON'T have to do?

I still wish I could have taken the summer off (ala the Gilmore Girls) when my son graduated high school. I'm not sure he would have wanted to go to Europe with me for an entire summer, but three weeks would have been wonderful.

Then again, there's still time to take a shorter trip together, maybe when he gets his degree next year. I've already started fantasizing about where we could go, and getting my husband to go with us.

Quebec. Jerusalem. Crete. Barcelona.

Just so long as there are no activities we have to plan... I'm in.

Mount Rushmore: Mike Tigas
Ocean: Peter Budd

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Children and Art

In the early years of my first marriage, I was introduced to a friend of the Rabbi's wife where my (first) husband worked. The friend was apparently an artist, or at least, that's how the Rabbi's wife introduced her. She asked me what I did and I started talking about writing plays and acting. I got a few sentences in when she interrupted me.

"Wow," she said, "it sounds like you're doing a lot! You must not have children."


I stopped talking and tried not to let my mouth hang open. I literally couldn't even believe what I was hearing. 

Set aside the obvious snarkiness of the phrase. Why does having children preclude being creative or having time to create? Yes, it takes time to care for young children. But so does a full time job or multiple jobs) which many artists need to have.

This woman was obviously feeling upset that her children were holding her back from whatever she wanted to do as an artist. So much so, that she needed to tell me that the only reason I was accomplishing anything was because I was not a mom.

It was an ugly moment, and I think ultimately I decided not to answer her and walked away from the conversation. But I remembered this woman recently when I saw a post on Instagram. The writer was lamenting the fact that people were always asking him when he was going to have kids.

Why do people feel it's any of their business? Whether you have one, two, seven kids or none should have no bearing on anything (except for you and your family, of course). But people somehow feel they have the right to share their pronouncements on this subject all the time. When I was pregnant another family friend had to tell me that being a mom of a very young child means you can't do anything else but be a mom. Ever.

Again. Huh?

Yes, I was tired (OK, exhausted), by caring for an infant and during much of my son's first year. But I was still able to do a little writing and more importantly, find a good support system of paid help so I could carve out more time as my son got older. 

Somehow no one blinks if a mom has to return to work three months after her child is born (let alone the dad having to go to work the very next day). But if an artist is trying to figure out how to find work time with a newborn, everyone thinks she can't/shouldn't?

I don't get it. But if I met the woman I mentioned again, and she said I was only an artist because I didn't have kids, I'd tell her that I know a ton of artists with children and are even inspired by them, artistically and otherwise. I'd also want to tell her I don't think parents should judge nonparents and vice versa.

And then I might ask her to get a life. Politely. 

Or not. :)

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Breaking the Homework Rule

Yes, there are a lot of rules for kids, but guess what, Virginia, there are a LOT of rules for parents too. One of the biggest ones is DO NOT help your kids with their homework. Parents who do get called helicopter parents, hover crafters and worse.

So  it's at considerable risk I'm posting here today to say I was one of those parents who DID help. I have my reasons, and IMHO they weren't because I was into helicopters.

My mother helped me with homework in early elementary school, most especially with math work and even more with reports for science or English studies. I cut out the pictures we pasted into the reports, but she helped me find them. She wasn't "supporting" me from the sidelines, by the way. She was actively helping me to put things together.

While my mom helped with math problems (though she wasn't great at math), I mostly remember hours of working on reports with her, and those times together were some of our best. I'm not sure why she did it, because I don't think she got a lot of help as a kid (unless that's why).

Working on school projects with my mother taught me something I was NOT learning in school, namely, HOW to create reports and do assignments carefully and how to be disciplined about doing them. And as a six or seven year old, I didn't know and wouldn't know how to do that unless someone SHOWED me. 

If left to my own devices, would I have created reports like the ones I did? I doubt it. I would have written something, maybe, but I had no real idea of how to go to a library or comb through magazines to find pictures or even how to write my thoughts down in any way that made sense. I also learned that writing was IMPORTANT, because my mother clearly thought so and wanted to take time out of her day to make sure I did, too.

So, okay, say I learned that from my mother doing ONE report with me. Did she really need to help on subsequent ones for the next year or two when I was in first and second grade? Technically, no, she didn't.

But we don't always learn something by doing it once. I think learning is really more a process of absorption, of doing and doing again until it becomes second nature to you. These days, when I have writing assignments or deadlines, people tell me they appreciate how fast I am and I'm happy to say I found a lot of success as a writer, artistically and otherwise. 

In other words, I don't need anyone to help me anymore. But I'm glad I had help when I needed it.

And when my son was little I helped him with his reports (though I stunk at math so he was pretty much on his own there unless he got extra help and time from a teacher at school). But these days he writes his own papers and I enjoy reading them. 

That's why I think showing, rather than telling him how to put reports together in first and second grade was a good idea. I'm not saying every parent has to agree with me, but it really worked in our family and I don't think it was "bad" or "helicopter" parenting. And maybe I'm not supposed to say this, but sometimes, it was even fun.

So much for rules, I guess. 

Here's what I found on this topic:

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Death Wish

This week I read an article about Silicon Valley (spearheaded by Google) working on research projects to expand longevity by centuries and eliminate death. This made me think of another article I read about multi-millionaires buying up "apocalypse" housing in case there's a huge earthquake or nuclear disaster.

So this is what these guys are spending their time and money on these days, except for people like Bill and Melinda Gates, whose foundation actually focuses on poor people across the globe. But reading the article this week made me think about death and if it's the tragedy the folks in this article say it is.

Maybe I'm crazy, but to me, the answer is no.

Sure, I would like to see diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's eradicated. I'd like to get rid of all the deadly diseases attacking us, and the violence and wars. But do I want to live for 300 years?

On the face of it, I suppose we all want to live a little longer, if we're lucky enough to be living well. I have questions, though.

Some of the "inventions" being talked about in Silicon Valley include meshing human genes with computers. So we'd become part cyborg, right? What if some of those eternal dictators were people like Stalin or Pol Pot? Would they stay in office, year after year?

I'm also wondering about resources, because last time I checked they weren't infinite. Shouldn't we be leaving some of what we have to the next generation and the ones after that?

Next question: what kind of world will our kids inherit if we're more concerned with living forever and hiding from disasters than what we leave behind? Shouldn't the focus be on what you do--whether it's writing a book or play or composing songs or creating paintings or inventing immunizations that prevent polio or AIDS or diphtheria or diabetes? What about building affordable housing communities and helping people live better lives?

Maybe ideals like these are hopelessly old fashioned, but I can't help thinking that if there are just a privileged few who live to 300 and hide away in luxury housing, what's the point of their lives?

I'd rather concentrate on leaving something lasting behind that you'll remember. To me, that's the only real way to transcend death. And life, for that matter.

So if you want to talk about that, Silicon Valley... I'll be listening.

Hand in Computer Photo: Sarah