Six Year-Olds, 29 Years Later

3721935942_6b97d286aa

I went for a walk with a soul I met in kindergarten, my first friend who was not also my cousin. My mom joked that we became close because we were the only two minority, less than upper-class students in the class. I can’t corroborate that because the only division I noticed at the time was that we were all brown from a high desert summer except Catherine, who glowed with an ivory pallor and crown of blond plaits that I found mesmerizing. I had never seen someone that fair.

Keeping touch with childhood friends makes me think like an old woman- seeing the full length of my life, feeling the stretch of years as one event. Our shared experiences took place when we were shorter and had smoother cheeks, but it hardly matters. We are shaped by the sum of our experiences, not just the recent additions.

il_fullxfull.132528183Friends from youth are as much a part of my life as those who currently inhabit it. No matter where we are in life, our interactions with people follow a pattern. We come into each other’s lives, walk along side for a time, and then continue on our individual paths.

After kindergarten, my friend and I went separate ways until 6th grade, when we were once again at school together and our paths ran parallel until high school graduation. We now live on opposite ends of the country, but are digitally reconnected. While separated geographically and politically, she is a woman who’s decency and solid mind I admire greatly.

I can only think of one person I wish I had never met, whose interactions were onerous and pedagogically fallow. The upper classman concertmaster who dressed down 11 year-old me in front of the rest of our combined 6-12th grade violin section- I could have done without that arrogant ass. The only thing I learned from him was that some people are just jerks and that grudges can be carried easily for decades. Even the violist in my most dysfunctional chamber ensemble ever was diverting enough to make for good stories. (He threw a telephone receiver in a fit of anger- the big clunky kind that used to be attached to walls- over a spat about tuning his 3rd.)

I appreciate people who come into my life. I admire them for what they’ve accomplished, or skills they’ve mastered that I have not. I esteem their strengths, especially when I am aware of some of their weaknesses. If people approach me honestly, I will respond in kind.

20121217-163827I cannot imagine being any other way. It would be exhausting to try to impress people, or to put up facades and keep distance. I’m too lazy for that. Here I am, a 6 year-old, a 16 year-old, a nearly 36 year old- adding years and people one by one, filling my memory with the richness of walking with my 6 year-old friend, 29 years later, toting her son, unpacking our families, careers, and ideas. For all the distance of space and years, knowing her is part of my whole.

Maybe my nostalgia is syrupy. Maybe it’s easy to feel like people are wonderful as I sit here, alone, in my house. Maybe I get caught in waves of emotion. Eh, so what? There are worse things than liking people easily.

The illustrations are all by Joan Walsh Anglund, a favorite from my childhood. Her website is here.

Creative Destruction

There is a fine line between encouraging children’s creativity and letting them ruin your life. When their imaginative and explorative minds are fully active- watch out- something is going to get trashed. Children who are not fed on a steady diet of screen time are dynamic mess makers. It is the price paid for turning off the TV/smartphone/tablet/computer/DS/game console; they come out of stasis and commence learning.

I once came upstairs to find my 2 and 4 year old “greasing the piggy”- spreading Eucerin skin cream (the really thick one) like frosting on Bear’s piggy bank. It was all over their clothes and they were having a ball. Being the party killer that I am, I put a stop to it, but I couldn’t be mad. No doubt it was tactily stimulating.

At some point, each one of my children turns a lipstick all the way up and mashes the cap back on. They dump out boxes of neatly ordered items- bandages, cotton swabs, tea bags, but lack the interest and small motor skills to put them back in. They unroll rolls of toilet paper, pull out entire boxes of tissue, gleefully rip out page after page of phone books. (Alas, our youngest never had this thrill as we received our last one before she was of paper ripping age.) They are on a mission of discovery that usually entails moving from order to chaos.

As older children, they body paint themselves with sidewalk chalk or mud. Walls double as canvas, napkin, and Kleenex. Peony petals are stripped from their stems and flung about in a Disney excess of beauty and delight, leaving plants dejected and a near carpet of pink on the grass that quickly turns to something resembling brown snot. They’ll cut a ticker tape parade worth of paper nitnerts before they vote in their first election. They will all end up on my floor.

I was similarly busy as a child. While my parents lived with much child-made chaos, there was one feature that made harmony between childhood and adulthood easier.

My natal home has a two-part backyard. Visible from the house is the lawn, babbling pond, patio, and bonfire pit- all against a DSC_0080backdrop of a 5’ stucco wall and a riotous wisteria. There is only a glimpse of the Neverland that lies beyond- the back back[yard.]

The back back was our realm. We were essentially free to do anything there that didn’t involve shedding our own or each other’s blood, or at least not much of it. We had everything a child’s imagination and ingenuity required. A patch of 10’ bamboo-like grass served as building material for teepees, fishing poles, pit traps, spears, and anything else that required a stick. Queen of Heaven trees grew like weeds and, when we were old enough, we were allowed to cut them down for sturdy lengths of stinky green wood. We had food- apricots, grapes, and apples. A spigot watered our meager garden, filled multiple buckets for countless uses, and slaked the thirst of small throats. We dug a huge hole one summer that morphed from swimming hole to Egyptian tomb, to bear trap, to root cellar. We buried small pets there (previously expired,) marking their graves with haphazard markers that were always conspicuously absent after the next mowing.

We played at farmer, Peter Pan, and weeks worth of “Refugee”- a game of pretend in which we survived in the jungles of Vietnam with our family and pet panda.- like “house” with a touch more drama. We had many adventures. We discovered many things. We made a mess. If it had not been for the shield of that masonry wall, if my parents had had to look at a pit trap from the living room, or the bundles of tall weeds we harvested and tied as sheaves of wheat from the dining room, our activity would have been curtailed. That wall separated our worlds enough that they could let us be creative and imaginative and still have their adult preference for purposeful landscaping and order.

My family was lucky to have that wall there when we moved in. I doubt my parents would have divided their yard by choice, but it proved beneficial. Adults with children in their lives should consider the level of chaos with which they are comfortable and how attached they are to their possessions. Then they ought to set meaningful boundaries they are willing to enforce. If they do not, children will naturally expand to fit the space allowed, just like grown ups.

Of course, this is all highly individual. I know families who live by the Montessori mantra, “Everything in its place and a place for

Montessori- take me away!

everything.” I am in awe of those parents. I know families who are comfortable letting their children have the whole house and don’t mind the mess. Every room is full of children’s detritus- books, art, toys, games, etc.  Other families have rooms that are off limits to children, lest small feet mar the uniform nap of the carpet, or leave other evidence of their being lying around. My aunt, who had 3 boys and was married to a 4th, had a room that was just hers- full of girly projects and things she didn’t want broken. If you possessed a penis, you were barred.

Based on households I know, I consider my chaos tolerance as middling. Art and drinks stay at the table (That is the rule, but I have found a glass of milk turning to yogurt in a closet.) Playing with water happens outdoors or in the bathtub. Toys are not allowed on stairs; that is just dangerous. There are two rooms where children are not permitted to play- the kitchen- because I am always there and don’t want to trip on Legos, and my bedroom.

The parental bedroom is adult space. Period. Hot Swede and I are quite capable of trashing it ourselves and require no youthful assistance. After a whole day with children, I want one place where I can go and not have to step over plastic food or ruin a foot on a die cast car.  Other than that, they are free to roam. Of course, I am also a terrible troll and make them pick up their messes… when I have the energy.

Some parents feel guilty if they limit or carve out specific spaces or ways for children to play. Hot Swede and I are not among them. We

hmm, maybe a bunker?

hmm, maybe a bunker?

love our children and pay a financial and career-stifling price so I can devote these few years to caretaking this family. But, this is our life too, not just theirs. We live here as well. Heck, we own the place. Hot Swede pays for every material thing about our home with days of his life. I don’t want our children to squander that. I protect pockets of order and set rules about our home to retain a grip on my tenuous sanity and decrease the sense of fruitless effort that comes with keeping a house where children live.

Children need space and permission to make messes and do their learning.  Adults need the order and predictability that children unravel. It is about finding balance- a shifting equation of adult and child needs, unique to each set of people and circumstances, each finding her space and peace, being true to herself and respectful of others. Where do you put your walls and boundaries? How do you manage living with young inquisitives and youthful creatives?

Learning to Write

I’ve been writing this blog for 5 months now.  It’s the first blog I’ve ever had and I am enjoying it. I try to write a post a week. This is slightly strenuous as I have other things to do. I need blocks of uninterrupted time. I need a topic I am ready to write about. I am no longer facile enough to blather on about anything. And I am slow.

Every time I sit down to write, I think of all the teachers who forced me to put words down. I am indebted to them for teaching me to organize my thoughts and instructing me on wielding the tools of language. I have noticed that those with whom I was educated manipulate language with a lot of skill. And these are not just the classmates who became writers. These are farmers, yogis, scientists, doctors- eloquent people in every field. I think it is because we learned to do it early and got plenty of practice.

The last time I wrote with regularity, I was in high school. I was slow, but not as slow as I am now. I was blessed early on with a lot of teachers who made 2826079915_7b8ccb95b7me write, and I got good at churning out papers. Mrs. Eaby (2nd grade) made me write a lot of stories. Ms. Moorehead (5th grade) regularly had me turning in 4-5 pages of notebook paper full of stories, reports, or essays, and she made us journal every day.  She also had me write and illustrate a book for a kid’s writing competition. I’m pretty sure that’s the year I developed the divot in my right index finger where my pen sits.

In sixth grade, I moved to a college prep school and wrote at least a paper a week until graduation. It started on a typewriter. I loved the click of the keys, the way the hammers struck with enough force to emboss the letters into the paper. But, oh, correction tape was such a pain, and I had to compose by hand and then type the final draft, pecking all the way until Mrs. Butterfield forced us all to learn to type correctly. Thank you, Mrs. B for your strangely stressful class of sixth graders all doing timed typing exercises while you walked around correcting hand position and catching us looking at our hands. (My favorite Mrs. B quote: “If you’re going to lie or cheat at something, do it for something important, not a typing test.”) Her class proved invaluable in this digital age.

My teachers took the time to offer real critiques of my mechanics, styles and thought process. I got paragraphs of reflection at the end of each paper and, with the exception of one teacher, I always knew exactly why a paper had earned the grade it did.

We wrote papers on everything at that school. I still have most of them in binders, arranged by year. Most were essays on literature we were studying. I wrote an epic poem in 8th grade that was 15 pages long. I am sorry you had to grade that, Mr. Brown.  I wrote lab write-ups (which I hated,) ½ pages in Spanish, a couple research papers for orchestra (yes, orchestra,) painfully dramatic stories, bad poetry, regurgitations and research papers for history class, oral and written presentations on Plato, Aristotle, and Nietzsche (oye,) and an assigned over-analysis of The Beach Boys’ song “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena.” (It’s a feminist diatribe against the American male establishment, in case you were wondering.)

In ninth grade, we read The Elements of Style, and were forced to own and refer to the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. It was not fun reading, but it proved useful, despite my griping at the time. The best thing I got out of that school was some mastery over words and the tools to make them do my bidding.

large_text53874_32560By my junior year, I could click out a 3-5 pager (1” margins, 1.5 spaced, Palatino font, Chicago- if it seemed short) on my hand-me-down Macintosh SE in a few hours. I never took my teachers’ advice to do a rough draft ahead of time. It all happened in one sitting- write, re-read, panic, shift paragraphs, compose new transitions, re-read, tweak, write the intro, make sure I wrapped it all up at the end, print, pull off the dot-matrix edges, staple or clip (depending on the teacher) and go to bed between 2 and 4 am.

I worked well with a fire lit under my rear. Some of the best papers I wrote were the three I wrote for Mr. Musgrave at the end of 10th grade. They were overdue and he said he’d fail me if I didn’t have them all in by the end of the week. I wrote one every night for three nights. He gave me barely passing marks because they were so late, but wrote glowing feedback and said that they were worth waiting for and my best work. Apparently, I thrive on fear.

When I went to college for music, I knew my writing days were essentially over. I picked my freshman English class based on the number of books in the syllabus that I had already studied. I read one new work for that class- A Doll’s House. I had my mom send me all my notes and papers on the other books. She asked me if that was plagiarism. “Nope,” I said, having already anticipated the objection. “It’s my work. They are rough drafts for this class.” It was awesome. Professor DuRocher like my writing and I did rework them… except for the one where I only changed the date and the professor’s name. I did; I’m not proud of it. I was working very hard at trying to get my mind and fingers around playing chord progressions and that paper on Hamlet was already passable. By the way, Professor DuRocher, may he rest in peace, was a truly inspiring teacher. I wish I had the chance to really study with him.

Writing for my music history professor was a nightmare. I spent my entire education learning to write artful prose with style and flow and she had no use for such froth. Dr. Hanson was tough 6189238026_ea959a4e23_nas nails, no nonsense, “don’t waste my time with your flowery segues and connecting transitions.” She would cross them out and write “bullshit” on anything that didn’t directly support my thesis. I got disappointing marks on every paper I wrote for her because I could not bring myself to write the way she wanted. She was also the kind of teacher who took off a point for every misplaced comma in footnotes and bibliography. And you had better stay consistent with either MLA or ALA style! I am getting tense just thinking about it.

I took 5 classes with this excellent teacher. She knew her stuff and was painfully efficient and clear in her presentation of the material. By the 5th semester, I got it. She finally broke me of my habit of nice writing. I turned in a paper on Copland’s “The Tender land” opera that read like an outline. An outline was my first draft. I took out the letters and numbers, added enough words to make full sentences, double and triple checked my notations and turned in a completely artless paper full of nothing but analysis and citations. The introduction actually included the phrases “First, I will show… Then, I will analyze… Finally, I will…” She deemed it acceptable. I earned an A and she wrote on the last page “Yes! You finally got it!” Whew, what a relief.

So here I am, making myself write again, in my pre-Dr. Hanson style, because it is good for me, because it helps me sort my mind and because, apparently, people besides my mother enjoy reading it.

425669_225060984259427_1569910971_nTo my writing teachers, Eaby, Moorehead, McAfee, Robertson, Moore, Lipkowitz, Brown, Scanlon, Musgrave, Kuh (even though I didn’t have you in class,) Pennington, Field, Hanson, and DuRocher, thank you. I hope I don’t embarrass.

Mind Their Manners

A plea for parental courtesy, for everyone’s sake.

A few weeks ago, an elderly man lurched out of our church service in a hurry. The effects of stroke encumber his body, but he moved quickly and was clearly distressed. Four ushers rushed to his side to see what was the matter. Agitated, he repeated himself four or five times before they understood- “The children, yelling in church!” It was true. This gentleman had been seated near a small child who had been yelling (not crying or fussing, just yelling) for quite awhile.  I had trouble hearing the sermon and I was 20 feet away. This gentleman ended up sitting near the nursery and listening to the remainder of the service over the speakers. The yeller stayed in her pew.

When did it become okay for people to inflict their disruptive children on large gatherings of the public? When did parents stop minding their children’s behavior

and removing disorderly youngsters from church services, movies, restaurants, waiting rooms, weddings, etc? I may suffer from early onset curmudgeonry, but I am not the only one to notice this trend. Fed up restaurateurs ban children from their establishments. I’ve seen waiters with trays of food trip over Lilliputian diners who are allowed to frolic about the dining room. Hostesses provide crayons, coloring pages, games, and pizza dough to play with, in an effort to keep children in their seats and reasonably quiet. Clerks in shops full of breakable baubles bristle like porcupines when I walk in with three small people. On airplanes, childless travelers tighten their jaws when seated next to my 6 and 4-year-olds and then compliment them and me on their good behavior at the end of the flight, their words sighing with relief.

Ugh, airline travel.

Ugh, airline travel.

I like children. From experience (three kids worth of experience) I know how little control I have over any family situation. I can’t always predict what kids will say, when they will need the toilet, or puke on an airplane. (Dear sir next to me in the last row of that Delta flight, you were so gracious when my daughter threw up all over us… twice. If I hadn’t been so flustered, I would have bought you a drink. You are a gem.)

Most people are pretty patient with normal childlike behavior, and just want to know that parents are sensitive to the impact their young have on others. Babies make noise. Toddlers get tired of sitting still. Pre-schoolers are not always capable of controlling their behavior. This is why we hold parents responsible.

As the adult, I am responsible for extending courtesies to the people with whom my children come in contact. Young children are not yet capable or skilled enough to do it themselves. If my child pours milk into your handbag, I will be horrified, apologize and try to make amends. Because he is my child, I take on the consequences of his actions as though they are my own. Common decency does not allow me to dismiss the act with, “Kids will be kids. What are you going to do?”

Direct destruction of property may be an extreme example, but what if my kid ruins your romantic dinner by banging her fork on her plate repeatedly, talks through an entire movie, stunt drives his die cast car across the hood of your new car, or cries loudly throughout your daughter’s wedding? And what if I do nothing?

I frequently see parents laugh at or ignore a child who is impinging on another’s experience. You may find your child’s behavior charming and excusable. But here’s the truth- No one thinks your kid is as darling as you do, not even her grandparents. Ask yourself how you would feel if the loud, obnoxious, boorish gal stumbling around, throwing peas and yelling was a full-grown adult. Not as tolerable, is it?

That isn’t to say that people should not give a little grace to children and their parents. (Actually, we could stand to give a little grace to everyone.) Children will melt down despite a parent’s best efforts, and it is important to remain calm and give the parent a chance to handle the situation before becoming incensed and offended. For me, as long as the parent is addressing the behavior, and is sensitive to the people around them, I have no problem. We were all children once and our parents taught us how to behave. These children are the people who will be our caregivers when we are in the nursing home, so- be nice.

We parents owe it to our fellows to minimize the impact of our children’s negative behavior. It is common respect. We owe it to our children to teach them good 20762534_660705a831_zmanners and to protect their young reputations. When parents allow bad behavior to go unchecked, they make all children guilty by association, thus- bans on children in restaurants. Worse, they make pariahs out of their innocent children. Adults don’t want to be around them and other parents don’t want their children around them either. They won’t say it to the parent’s face, but hey say it to everyone else.

So, what? Do we keep our kids at home until they can use choose the right fork at a fancy dinner? No, they need chances to practice and learn. Parents should take them out in public, but only if they are willing to do the work of teaching and guiding. Talk about the expectations for behavior ahead of time, and how different events demand different kinds of behavior. Don’t take them somewhere where you are unwilling or unable to skedaddle if it all goes south. Remove children when they are disruptive; it is less awful than staying. Don’t take them places where you know they have no chance of behaving reasonably (courtrooms, late night dinners, screenings of Ingmar Bergman films come to mind.) Yes, there have been times when I’ve spent entire church services cajoling toddlers to be quiet, or standing in the narthex with a fussy baby. I have been known to employ gum and orange Tic Tacs liberally. I’ve spent hours on a plane with a hand on small legs, reminding them not to kick the seat in front of them.  It’s all part of making small savages civil.

Human society is complicated and nuanced. It takes years to learn its rules and absorb its conventions. This is why human childhood is so long and why we have parents for the duration- to guide us through the social jungle and soften the discord between our inexperience and the adult world. When their behavior is good, children are an absolute joy to be around. They infuse life and beauty into any gathering. The best part of any wedding reception are the diminutive guests- shoes off, shirt half-untucked, getting down on the dance floor.ba1de2eb0ff97867d7aa474eb3c3e20f-d5z94e5

Have you had experiences with unruly children and their parents? Am I off base? Please tell me if this is a personal quirk and I need to lighten up. I will listen. I’d especially like to hear how other parents handle their children’s less than ideal public behavior and how you handle OTHER people’s unruly kids. (There’s a thorny one.) I take all tips and suggestions.

Getting the Girl You’ve Got

End table- really, I have no idea what graphic to put here, but isn't it purdy?

End table- really, I have no idea what graphic to put here, but isn’t it purdy?

The other day, Hot Swede and I were having a discussion about end tables (titillating, I know,) when he started in on a story from his boyhood.

He told me of a six-year old Cute Swede, playing alone in his parents’ basement, wondering if the story about the boy crying, “Wolf!” was true, if people would come running if he cried out. So he laid himself out, limbs akimbo, and screamed for help. It worked! Dad came running down the stairs, and after assessing the situation, became very angry.

It was my first hearing of that story, and it made him utterly charming. What a nice thing- to discover an amusing new detail about a treasured companion I know so well. For those moments of the telling, he was new to me, and I was as smitten as ever.