Monday, September 25, 2017

Shitty Kidding

My oldest daughter couldn’t stop crying the other day, which was surprising.
She doesn’t cry nearly as much as she used to. Broadly speaking, this is a good thing. The sound of your child’s inconsolable sobs can cause physical pain; a sonic cocktail of fingernails on a chalkboard, an injured dog, and Richard Harris’s “MacArthur Park.” As a young child she cried often. Rarely did I understand the reason. Even more rarely could I get her to stop.
When she wailed, I would experience a gauntlet of emotions, from sad to befuddled to frustrated to enraged. Too often, I heard myself venting to an imaginary parenting coach, “She’s crying for no fucking reason!”
Sometime during my parental maturation process, I realized that no one cries for no reason, least of all a child. The failure to understand your children is probably not a failure at all. And if it is, it certainly isn’t a failure on their part. A child’s job isn’t to make itself understood. In fact, I’m beginning to believe that a child’s job to say to its parent, “Please promise that you’ll always love me even if you never understand me.” And a parent’s job is to say, “Okay.” And if that happens, and if they both really mean it, then I think they’ve each given the other the greatest gift they can give.
My daughter and I aren’t there yet.
But we’re working on it.
I’m not sure these realizations have made me a better or more patient parent. Although, somewhere along the way I learned that it’s okay to walk away from my emotionally distraught child rather than bark, “Why the hell are you crying?” at her, which is an improvement in the same way that a drought is an improvement over a flood.
It’s hard to overstate just how ill prepared I was to be a parent to an intensely emotional kid. (It’s also possible that the period in the last sentence could have been placed after “parent.”) And it bears repeating that nothing she did – the colic, the hypersensitivity to clothes, the refusal to sleep, the decision to leave her own birthday party (after the guests had arrived!), the time she prevented a plane from taking off because she wouldn’t wear her seatbelt – was her fault. None of it was my fault either, or so I’ve been told. But it is certainly true that my inability to understand why she was doing these things felt like failure. And repeatedly failing at the main thing you’re trying to be good at is, to put it mildly, a disregulating sensation.
As she approaches her thirteenth birthday, she is unquestionably “better.” Not surprisingly, so am I.  I’m still not sure I understand her, but I’m trying to trust that I don’t need to. Lord knows her “improvement” isn’t a product of anything I’ve done or changed. Maybe she cries less because eventually everyone cries less, or, God help me, because she thinks I care less. Probably there’s some other explanation.
It strikes me as odd, albeit appropriate, that the word “parent” is a noun and a verb, both of which pertain someone who is raising a child; whereas the word “kid,” when used as a verb, does not specifically pertain to someone who is being a child. I think “kidding” should mean “performing the action of being a kid,” in the same way that “parenting” means “performing the action of being a parent.”
When I see someone deny frozen yogurt to a begging and pleading four-year-old, I think, “That’s some good parenting there.” When that same person caves and says, “If I get you the frogurt, will you stop crying?” I think, “Wow! That was some really shitty parenting.”
Of course, there’s no such thing as “shitty kidding.” That’s because there is no objective standard for how to “kid.”
When an adult hits a child, that’s shitty parenting.
When a child hits an adult, that’s…what, a teachable moment?
And it’s the fact that shitty kidding is not only acceptable, but even normalized that leads to shitty parenting.
Which all leads back to why I was such a shitty parent to my shitty kid. And why, no matter what anyone says, I’ll always blame me and not her.
Which made her crying the other day all the more confusing.
She knows herself so well now. At 13, she has become, if anything, a little emotionally reserved. Sometimes I can’t tell what she’s feeling. And while her stoicism is a little eerie and occasionally makes me sad, I recognize that it is a coping mechanism she’s developed for just not wanting to feel so much.  Tears come in drizzles not torrents. She avoids public spectacle. For better or for worse, she is growing up.
Recently, I had been encouraging her to join some friends on the middle school cross-country team. More accurately, I had been encouraging the coach to encourage her. This, because adolescents experience direct parental encouragement as de facto judgment. Hence, the coach as intermediary. When, at home, I off-handedly asked if the coach had spoken to her, she fell apart.
All the memories came flooding back. She cried for what felt like 20 minutes. I tried to help, but I only made it worse. I got upset because I didn’t understand why she was upset. Her shitty kidding had revealed some shitty parenting that I didn’t even know I’d done. And before I knew it, I went from feeling empathy to anger. Suddenly she was five years old again and I was wondering if CPS ever comes to the house for “general incompetence.”
Her mother stepped in, as she has done so many times before. They retreated to her room and I tried to figure out where the screw up came. Through sobs, I heard her say, “I just don’t want to do it!”
The cross-country team? Was this really about the cross-country team? I couldn’t believe it. Why would my now emotionally stable 7th grader regress so suddenly and completely because of some third-party encouragement to join the fucking cross-country team?
The cries continued in the breathless, dry-heavey way I remembered. Through the gap under her closed door, I picked out snot-encrusted phrases like “too much pressure” and “can’t make me!”
Her mother just listened. I just eavesdropped. She began to calm down.
And then she said it.
“I really want to make dad proud, but I don’t want to be on the team.”
I had never before heard any of my three children say they wanted to make me proud. I’m not sure I’d ever considered what it would sound like. But if I had, I suspect I would have thought I’d enjoy it. I want to make dad proud seems like something every parent would want to hear.
But it crushed me.
There are many things I want my children to do; many experiences I want them to have. While it’s possible that I’m deluding myself, I genuinely believe that I want these things for them. All any parent wants for their child is to pursue something she loves, to pursue it with passion, and to find happiness in the pursuit. If we guide our children in one direction or another, it is merely to expose them to things that we hope might be worthy of their love and passion. Or so we tell ourselves.
The prospect that my daughter does what she does, not because she loves it, but because she wants me to love her for doing it, was deeply distressing.
I wanted to run into her room and free her from that horrible bondage. I wanted to take her in my arms, stroke her tear-stained cheeks, and whisper the most reassuring words I could offer: “Don’t worry honey, I’ll never be proud of you.”
But I didn’t. Instead, I waited until bedtime, tucked her gently under her covers, and told her that she didn’t need to do anything to make me proud. I was already proud of her. And I always would be. No matter what she did.
For five straight nights, I helped her to bed and said, “I’m so proud of you, honey.”
Until last night.
Last night, as I was putting her to bed, she said sheepishly, “Dad, you don’t have to tell me how proud you are every night. It kind of makes it seem, I don’t know, ‘less’ or something, you know? If you always say that you’re proud, it doesn’t mean as much. Does that make sense?”
“Yes,” I told her. “That makes sense.”
But what I think she was really saying was, “Promise that you’ll always love me, even if you don’t understand me.”
And what I was really saying was, “Okay.”

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Lost and Found

It must have been 1994 or 5. My ex-girlfriend was home from college for Christmas. We had begun sleeping together again, as we often did when we were both home over holiday breaks. Her mother was living in a one-bedroom apartment on Sutter and Jones in the City. The neighborhood, which later became known as the Tendernob, was a uniquely urban one, bordered by Michelin-starred Fleur de Lys at one end and St. Anthony’s soup kitchen at the other. In between, theater goers in Wilkes Bashford suits and I Magnin gowns mixed blithely with drunks, junkies, and tourists, in a delicate Herb Caenian romance that may never have existed but is clear in the age-enhanced memories of 20th Century San Franciscans. I climbed those hills, arm in arm with a woman I suspected I would marry, our sweat cooled by Carl the fog. We’d sneak in, close to midnight, through their medievally heavy door at the end of a carpeted third-floor hallway.  Her mother slept on the couch when my ex was home for the holidays. We had eager, muffled sex, careful not to mention whoever we were seeing back at school. Early in the morning, sometimes without sleep, I’d creep out, back into Carl’s arms, and begin my drive north across the Golden Gate Bridge.
On this particular night, I’d parked my blue Honda Accord halfway up the block. We’d celebrated Christmas at my Jewish mother’s house the night before, a new development brought on by her recent marriage to an Armenian man from Oakland. My mother had given me two gifts, my step-father one. His was a quilted San Francisco Giants Starter jacket. It’s hard to imagine just how much joy this brought me in the mid-nineties. It was a clear attempt to buy my love by a man who didn’t yet know he didn’t need to. My birth parents had been separated for nearly 20 years by then. I had no memory of them ever being together. My mother had finally found a man who made her happy and treated her as I suspected she’d always hoped someone would. He took her to the opera. He took her to Europe. He always paid for dinner and he never got angry. I was sold.
It was my mother’s gifts that I’d wanted to show to my ex. One was a hand-carved wooden box that, in my memory, was supposed to house my collected works and ephemera. She had seeded the box with a letter she’d kept since 1970. I had never seen it before. The letter was addressed to my father, her ex-husband. When she gave it to me, she explained that she wasn’t sure why she’d ended up with it, but that she was sure my father would want me to have it. It was from my late grandmother, my father’s mother. Her name was Eunice Pearson, but everyone called her Nunie. She died of stomach cancer in 1980, when I was six. Then and now, my memories of her are among the most vivid I have. My father and I took several seasonal trips to her house when I was young. She glided around her Iowa City kitchen in a plush house coat, spreading Christmas like fairy dust, teaching me to make cinnamon rolls, and never ever losing patience with me. She was the warmest person I’ve ever known and also the most universally loved. In truth, I think she was the reason my mother married my father in the first place.
My grandmother's letter would have reached her recently wedded son when he was 23 or so, living with his new bride, my mother, on an Army base in Oklahoma. By the time it fell into my hands, its author had been dead for 15 years. The letter was a kind of apology or, perhaps, an acknowledgement; one she’d needed to make for a long time, but had never quite known how. My father was the youngest of three boys. The oldest, my Uncle Bill, blessed with his mother’s twinkling eyes and room-filling charisma, died in a tragic diving accident as a teenager. Uncle Dick, the middle child, had been born with his umbilical cord around his neck. The resulting loss of oxygen caused brain damage and what was then called mental retardation. He lived with his parents until he became violent toward his younger brother, my father. As his young man’s strength grew, my grandparents felt it had become unsafe or, at least, unwise for him to remain with the family. He was sent to live in “a home” in Missouri and remained there until he died, 50-odd years later. My father grew up in these shadows. 
          In her letter, my grandmother, seemingly for the first and only time, was acknowledging that my father had borne the burden of his fraternal crosses; the weight of the family resting on his narrow boy’s shoulder. It must have been hard, she wrote, and they had never told him that, all along, they’d understood just how hard. And maybe they should have. And maybe it was too late now. But too late was better than never, she hoped. Now that he was grown and married and bound to start a family of his own, she wanted him to know that she knew. And she was sorry.
I wept for a long time when I read the letter. I’d always understood my father’s childhood through a series of oft-repeated, humorous anecdotes. As a child, I’d begged him through belly laughs to retell the stories. Like the one where my grandfather had been sent to Drumheller, Alberta at the age of nine, in the depths of the Depression, to find the father who’d abandoned him and his mother to homestead on the frozen tundra. He took the train across the border alone, used his life savings to buy a mule at the station, and rode for three days through the freezing snow and wind until he found his father. They spent the winter together. It was awful. And then my grandfather went home to Iowa. Ha!
Or the time when oldest brother Bill had run around the neighborhood in the middle of the night, waking the neighbors to announce the birth of his new baby brother, Charles Joseph Pearson. When my grandparents returned from the hospital, one neighbor after another rang the bell, asking to see little Charles Joseph. “Who?” my grandparents asked. “The baby, of course?”  And so it was that my soon-to-be-dead uncle named his baby brother, without his parent’s permission, and there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about it. Guffaw!
Or the time when, after decades apart, my father had gone to see Uncle Dick at the home in Missouri. The attendants brought Dick down from his room and the long lost brothers spent the day together. Though they didn’t recognize each other at first, the hours they spent together in the pool and the game room, walking the grounds and sharing meals, had felt like something real. My father returned to his nearby hotel feeling for the first time in his adult life like he had a meaningful connection with his one living brother. The following morning, he went back to the home to have breakfast with Dick before going to the airport to fly home. When the attendant appeared in the dining room, she was escorting someone my father didn’t recognize. “Who’s this?” my father asked. “Dick Pearson,” came the answer. Dick and my father breakfasted together in near silence. My father drove to St. Louis and flew home. He never did find out who that first guy was. But it sure as hell wasn’t his brother. Hillarious!
My grandmother’s letter proved the old adage, comedy equals tragedy plus time. I’d always understood my father’s family history as a series of comic stories that all but defied belief. The letter racked my focus. Suddenly, my father, who’d always seemed impervious to pain, seemed to me a repository for it. How had I never seen this? And, more amazingly, how had he never shown it?
The letter spent the night in its wooden box in my car, carefully hidden under my new Starter jacket. My ex and I had been too busy flirting and screwing for me to bother her with it. Besides, if we were getting married someday, I knew there’d be more time.
I left the apartment, bathing in the wash of clandestine sex and the City’s pre-dawn mist. I approached my blue Accord and felt something crunch under my feet. Shattered glass littered the blacktop. I reached through the broken window, unlocked the door, and looked in the backseat. The jacket was gone. And so was the box with the letter.
There is some nameless emotion between sadness and anger; one that makes a person want to smash his hard fist against something harder, so that the tears that won’t fucking come might come easier. Why not just leave the box? It’s been 23 years and I still wonder why they had to take the box. 

My father called me last night. He and my step-mother were doing one of their semi-annual feng shui purges.
“You won’t believe what I just found,” he said. “It’s cassette tape that my mother and father made in 1979. They’re on a trip to Hawaii and they wanted to send something to you and me.”
He went on to say that my grandparents sound awkward, two old people unfamiliar with new fangled audiocassette technology. He also told me that their voices were unfamiliar to him. Maybe the tape was worn out or maybe he was getting old, but it amazed him that he wouldn’t recognize his own parents’ voices.
On the end of the tape, my father and five-year-old me recorded something to send back to them. “It sounds like you’re in the bathtub. This would have been the house on Porteous, I think. I thought your kids would get a kick out of hearing your voice at that age.”
He seemed tickled by the tape. I could imagine why. Another chapter in the book of funny stories about our family. But I could only think of the voice from beyond the grave. On this tape were, perhaps, the last words my grandmother ever spoke to me, followed by the last words I ever spoke to her. I doubt that what I hear will make up for what I lost, but I still don’t know. Right now, I’m afraid to listen.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Growth Mindset

            “So what do you think we’ll do today?”
            My son asks this question frequently.
            His grandfather sits at the round table with the checkerboard pattern. He methodically works the New York Times crossword puzzle, periodically throwing clues in H’s direction.
            “Winnie-the-Pooh catchphrase?”
            “Eight letters.”
            “We’ll come back to it.”
            H circles the table peripatetically.
            “South American range?”
            “Oh!” H breaks from his orbit and walks to the framed world map hanging near the refrigerator. All geography clues send him to the map. “Ahn-dess,” he says, carefully adding Spanish pronunciation.
            “Anne-deez,” my father corrects him.
            “What! But it’s Spanish!” H cackles in feigned exasperation.
            He has been taking a Spanish enrichment class four mornings a week for nearly two years. He has learned virtually nothing. As he nears the end of third grade I am prepared to say that language acquisition is not a strength, which seems odd because he uses his first language almost constantly. At times he seems to be narrating his own life.
            “You're right,” says his grandfather. “In South America, that’s probably how they pronounce it.”
            “I’m not so good at Spanish,” says H, admonishing himself reflexively despite a rare moment of foreign language acumen. “Wait!” he looks in my direction and corrects himself. “I’m getting better at Spanish.”
            “That’s right,” I say.
            This growth mindset exercise has become something of a joke in my professional circle. No child, or for that matter, no person, is ever “bad” at anything. No one “can’t.” Everyone is “working on” a skill. All children are “still learning to” do whatever it is that they actually suck at and possibly always will. My fellow teachers and I have embraced the word “yet” as a catchall.
            I’m not a good artist, says StudentDylan.
            I’m not a good artist yet, say we, correcting him.
            I can’t spell “thesis,” says StudentMia.
            I can’t spell “thesis” yet, we encourage her.
            I don’t like reading, says StudentTeddy.
            Not yet. (Forced smile.) Growth mindset.
Some of the more sophisticated students recognize the subtle mockery in our voices. A smart middle schooler doesn’t need a pedantic reminder that his intellectual abilities have not peaked in 7th grade. Yet we persist, mostly because, through our cynicism, we believe in the power of positive reinforcement, but also because the absurdity makes us laugh.
Some people, even children (especially children!), just are the way they are. As a teacher, it almost seems kinder to tell a child, Yes, you are indeed bad at long division. And you probably always will be. But being alive requires some basic math. So suck it up. You get better at things by doing them, not by believing you’ll get better at them. And you have to do them whether or not you get better. “Not yet” is a ruse. Everything in life is “not yet.” Except death. Death is just “not today.” Unlike getting better at math, death is definitely going to happen. Now eat your snack.
            “So what do you think we’re going to do today?”
            He can’t not ask the question. My son is a planner. He needs to know the plan. Without a plan, he cannot relax. At home, this trait is mildly annoying. Paired with his garrulous nature, it means that idle moments are constantly conversational, which renders them not idle at all. But we are not at home. We are at his grandfather’s house in Mexico. Waves rhythmically crash outside the sliding glass doors. Beach umbrellas and palm fronds flutter in a late morning seabreeze. Young “indigenes” stroll up and down the beach politely hawking hair braiding, wooden jewelry, and shell animals. Pelicans futilely nosedive into the choppy blue water, not 50 yards from where I sit. Nothing has to happen today. No one here has a plan. This is why I come here; why I need to come here once a year.
            Wake up late. Drink coffee. Take a dip in the ocean. Listen to my father and H do the crossword. Apply sunscreen. Walk into town. Find a palapa. Drink beer. Eat tacos. Take another dip in the ocean. Read. Listen to the ballgame. Make a cocktail. Watch the sunset. Eat more tacos. Sing my son a lullaby. Talk to my father. Go to sleep. Rinse. Repeat.
            “So what do you think we’ll do today?”
            “Sweetheart, I don’t know. Can you maybe just try to relax?” I add the sweetheart because he is sensitive and I’ve learned that his feelings are easily hurt when I suggest he try to do something that is hard for him. Without Sweetheart, he hears, you should be different than you are.  Sweetheart says, you should be different than you are, but I love you anyway. It’s a small difference, but it’s the best I can do for him.
            “Don’t apologize. You haven’t done anything wrong.”
            “Right. Sorry."
            “Arg! I’m so bad at that. Wait. I’m working on that.”
            He goes outside to toss a baseball against a wall. Sitting still is hard.  I can hear him doing play-by-play. Silence is an enemy.
            “Is he always so hard on himself?” my father asks, looking up from his puzzle.
            “It’s a defense mechanism, I think,” I answer, sharing my half-baked theory on why my son apologizes for everything. “If he’s hard on himself, then no one can get mad at him.”
            “Sounds familiar,” he says pointedly.
            “I know. I’ve imbued my children with all of my neuroses and shortcomings.”
            “Now you’re being hard on yourself.”
            “I don’t really mean it. I just feel bad for him.”
            “What’s with the plan thing?”
            “He just needs to know what’s going to happen,” I say. “I think he thinks it will help him relax. But the bummer is that the only thing more disregulating than not having a plan is having a plan that doesn’t pan out. The poor kid gets so stressed out when things don’t go the way he expects them to.”
            “That’s tough.”
            The ball smacks the wall outside. The muffled call of a World Series game seven is carried on salt air through the screen door.
            “He’s getting better about it though,” I say.
            “Dad,” comes a voice between cracks of horsehide against stucco, “what are we going to do today?”
            “I don’t know, H. What do you feel like doing?”
            “I’m good with whatever."
             He doesn’t mean it. But maybe saying it will help.