Reminders of What We Wished Lost

Chellberg Barn, Indiana

A couple years ago, reading to kindergarteners, I had to pause and explain a barn to them. Red building, animals, in the picture in their storybook — they got that. They didn’t know the essence of driving down roads where barns stood on duty behind hundred year old family farmhouses. Didn’t know the gaps of daylight between rough-hewn siding, the smell of hay and manure and sweat, the forbidden dangerous glee of daring to jump from hayloft to floor. Didn’t know what it was to be absent all day, unaccounted for, only coming in for dinner smelling faintly of puppy and horse, hands and face smeared, hay jutting from loosened braids.

There comes a point where things that once had meaning no longer make sense.

We can’t cling to this or mourn it; it just is.

Yet it is a daily part of conversation.  “Ebook or print book?” hashtags debate all over twitter. Do we despise the ability to zap books instantly to our palm, if their existence eradicates the crisp smell of printed pages? Do we eye-roll at students who bypass libraries, assuming anything worth knowing has its own site?

This week I was reminded of another side to this: what of things we wanted gone? Do we bemoan these, as well, once they’ve left us?

Yes, in their own way. Drive out evil, but record it, turn a light on it, that it should not be repeated.

Arundhati Roy turns attention on child molestation, Toni Morrison on abuses against African-Americans, Lisa See on Chinese foot binding, Michael Cunningham on the AIDS epidemic, Jane Austen on gender bias in landholding rights, Jay Asher on suicide. German occupation, 9/11, drug and alcohol abuse, slavery, child neglect, fear of the wild, poverty. Those examples, just from the shelf in front of me, fall short of all literature seeks to record of what we wanted purged.

What is interesting is the feared void that follows such a purge: First the purge, then the teaching — the books, the movies, the retelling — to keep what was purged alive in our minds.

Much like needing to explain a barn, as mother to two young boys, I’ve had this thought close at mind over the past weeks, on heels of the controversy over the headline about Jeremy Lin, so stupidly published as “A Chink in the Armor.”

Author Matthew Salesses has come to my attention over the past year for his insight and intelligence, in writings I’ve followed through Twitter. He is someone I can identify with, as a sensitive parent, thinking ahead to the world his daughter will grow up in, but reflecting back, also, on the opportunities and exposure of his childhood. What I learned about him today is his perspective as an Asian American, which he reflects with exceptional candor and sensitivity in his essay, “Different Racisms…the Rules of Racism are Different for Asian Americans,“ on the Rumpus.

After reading it, I tweeted my appreciation to him.

Seconds later, I couldn’t help adding: “FWIW, if I heard the word chink, an Asian slur would be the hundredth+ meaning I would think of. Dumb? Or just not my thinking?”

Tweets are limited in dimension. Even as I clicked to send this to him, I worried, considering the heart he bravely peeled open in his essay, would he think I was arguing, that I was trying to minimize or dispute the cruel things said?  So I later clarified with him: really, for better or worse, I hadn’t heard someone use “chink” to describe a person since I was in high school.  (Which was, um, not last year.)

In fact, in describing the barn, above, I began to say “chinks of light” come through the planks, an accurate representation of what I meant — but was suddenly disproportionately conscious of the word’s double-meaning, from reading his essay.

It’s not that Matthew’s essay was the first time this has occurred to me.

I spent my early childhood in Detroit, in a mixed race, mixed religion neighborhood. I’ve lived in homogenous, protestant white communities, but at the moment live in a neighborhood where we are the white minority, in race and culture. In Charlotte, North Carolina, I was bussed into the inner city and taught by a teacher who’d marched with Martin Luther King. I crave diversity in my friends and cultural interests, and tend to be a little hyper-sensitive about racism and other forms of bigotry.

But what happens, 20 years into “political correctness,” when we have lived so long shunning slurs?

In the first years, like me avoiding “chink” in describing the barn, we are hypersensitive of the Words We Must Not Say. We know these words. We catch them before they escape lips. We flinch when we hear them said. If we’re good, we roll eyes or even yell when friends try to slip them in as humor. (Equally, we know there are those who savor saying them in badness.)

Now comes the weakness. When do we become like kindergarteners, not knowing a barn?

Even for point of illustrating, I refuse to type a list of slur examples to make the point. I. will. not. type. those. words.

So how do we continue to know them and the impact they have?  How do my sons know I’d skin them alive for saying the n-word if I’ve purged it so fully that such conversation never comes up?

In this, do we reach a point where we don’t remember the words we were to avoid?

Quite fairly, Matthew challenged me. Would I really not think chink was a slur “even if [I] heard it addressed to an Asian person?”

Have I really never heard “chink” said of an Asian? Have I never witnessed an Asian friend feel marginalized? Shine a light on something and you see — or remember — what did not otherwise come readily to mind.  In North Carolina, in the all-white neighborhood where we lived one year, my girlfriend from the Philippines shared her immense pain and rejection over how different her family was from the families around us — no matter that I loved her family and remember her grandmother’s fish and rice (bane of her existence), affectionately, to this day. I went to high school outside of DC, where Asians made up 20-30% of our school (some born in the US, some whose parents were working temporarily in government agencies, a few who spoke little English). I read Matthew’s essay now and remember — in nauseous horror — that a beautiful friend of mine, who all my friends thought very highly of, was nicknamed Chinky. Did she like it? Did she accept it and say nothing? Did we ignore it blindly? Does she avoid being facebook friends now out of long ingrained pain caused by it?

Matthew’s essay raises the point that racism toward Asians is often dismissed as being flattering, as if that made it okay.

There’s another truth. Within the first chapter of the textbook for my education course on Diversity, I read one sentence that struck me as very powerful. Statistics proving bias were not disputed. But surveys reveal that the race(s) and gender favored by the biases do not associate themselves with originating the bias.  In the survey, it was white males saying they don’t think of themselves as wanting to perpetuate stereotypes that held others down, and saw themselves as products of the bias as much as those hurt by it. (I can’t help add that the grass isn’t greener: As a teacher, I’ve witnessed significant prejudice and judgment of white boys from teachers and peers, who blatantly judge them lazy, disruptive, trouble makers, etc. But that’s very different trend.)

The point of the survey grabbed me because I think the disassociation from responsibility goes further than just those at the top of the hierarchy. Take someone like me. I am a writer, well educated, particularly focused on understanding diverse cultures worldwide. I personally feel no prejudices against races or genders or religions. Know myself, rather, to crave differing perspectives.

Do I then become part of the problem? Because a person like me — a person who wants us all to get along and not re-engage prior offenses — isn’t going to take the preemptive step of saying, “Remind me of all the things I want to avoid doing.” I’m going to assume, just because my heart is in the right place, my words and actions will be without barbs. This isn’t just random theorizing. For years, I’ve called my boys my “monkeys.” I’m a friendly teacher and sometimes nicknames slip out when talking to a student. I came up cold one day, having just called a boy in my class monkey and wondering, “Wait. Is he going to think, ’Aw, she likes me as much as her son’? Or is that a slur for something?”

Before teaching, I worked years in the courts, where political correctness was all consuming. No Christmas tree without a menorah beside it. No menorah or Christmas tree the year no one could figure out what to do about Kwanza or Ramadan. Race, disability, religion, gender, nationality, native language – we danced to be fair and equal with all, to the point even friends weren’t sure how to talk to one another any more.

But here I am, now dumb in my blindness to what might hurt others, bleached beyond sensitivity, back into dangerous territory.

Working to avoid pitfalls doesn’t mean they are no longer there. The fact we haven’t said a word or heard it lately doesn’t means bigotry isn’t alive and well — in memory or continuing experience.

It is a curious thing to wonder, are we at the point where remedial vocab training is needed? Do I teach my sons the words, the prior hurts, the things done wrong in the past, just to say, “Don’t do that”?

In literature, at least, we have the treatment, if not the cure. I told Matthew I thought his essay important. As happens throughout literature, he shines a light on one experience so that we can’t ignore the hurting that goes on, despite any best intentions.

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Why Dog Parents are Superior

Don’t get me wrong – and this is not the best opening line for my first blog here in months – but I learned much about how to parent my children from what I knew about training dogs.

I was reminded of this today as I read Pamela Druckerman’s Wall Street Journal article, Why French Parents are Superior.  Much of what Druckerman says in her article rings true to me – but with the caveat that I strongly disagree with her need to draw the line as “French people do this” and “Americans do this.”

As with so many categorical comparisons (girls vs. boys, race vs. race, north vs. south, rich vs. poor vs. middle class), her points are valid, but made weak by the lack of French vs. American accuracy in her details.  For one, having traveled with children in France (and Italy and Scotland and Ireland and Mexico…), I’ll tell you: most French people did not take their children to restaurants, which left ours in the minority to the point that one restaurant in Paris bought a high chair to accommodate our group, it was so rare for a child to be brought there.  And there is certainly a difference between a tired, traveling toddler in foreign surroundings being dragged to a restaurant for almost every meal, and a local child having an occasional meal out.  Our kids were habituated to restaurants but, on those international trips, it wasn’t uncommon for one to balk as we approached yet another restaurant after a long day.

Druckerman’s assertion that American parents are helicopter parents has been said before – but more of the current college and job-seeking generation than current toddlers, and of parents who helicopter-parent, not all Americans.  Likewise, the level of patience in children or interest in filling cupcake forms or quantity of toys in the living room (all examples from her argument) is a child by child, parent by parent, family by family issue.  As is her statistic of how many Americans love or dread parenting.

As a writer, I’m sure Druckerman was reaching for examples to make her point.  In fairness, the article is printed as a foil to the Wall Street Journal’s January 8, 2011 Tiger Mom article that had already asserted “Why Chinese Moms are Superior.”  In that context, Druckerman’s categorical argument was really responding in kind.  As with level-headed responses to the Chinese tiger mom’s book, any parents – Chinese, American, French or otherwise – can find value in reading about different cultural approaches to effective parenting.

France, China, tiger… I don’t get it – what’s this have to do with dog training?

One of Druckerman’s examples praised the calm parenting of a French mother, who explained discipline as educating the child, rather than punishing.

In fact, this is not unique.  Leonard Sax explains at some length in his book Boys Adrift (highly recommended reading) that the etymology of the word discipline comes from disciple, which means “teacher” not “policeman.” The intention of discipline for all parents should be educating a child, not punishing.

In that sense, Druckerman’s French friend may not have been so much a better parent as an effective translator.

It was interesting for Druckerman to give the example of children interrupting adults who are speaking, as most of us would agree that it is a rude habit.  We may notice when we do it and feel apologetic; we feel devalued when we are interrupted by a friend.  I’d be curious, culture-wide, if all American parents work to tamp it out of children’s habits.

Within my own community of American parents and within the school where I teach, we do calmly approach such things as children interrupting adults as an opportunity to “educate” the child, rather than punish, much like the example Druckerman gave.

When I am teaching and need to finish a concept without interruption, I have gone so far as telling the child who is waving his hand to share an idea, “Write a note so you won’t forget what you want to say.”  Sure, I want them to learn manners and patience — but I also want to encourage their responsibility to contribute to issues in their community, and to learn to manage their ideas and memory.  I try to teach children to respect where the urge to interrupt comes from (fear of forgetting their thought), and to manage that fear, not just shut up.

Still no dog training.

Of the French mother who asked her child to wait while adults were talking, Druckerman says, “I was struck both by how sweetly Delphine said it and by how certain she seemed that Pauline would obey her.”

It’s the second half of that: the certainty her request would be obeyed.

Asked once, then she moves on.

That’s good dog training.

Dog trainers tell people with new puppies, Say clearly what you want them to do.  Then trust they will do it.  If you believe they will listen, the dog hears that in you.  They don’t doubt.  They don’t add room for options.  She told me to sit.  I guess I’m going to sit.

My dog Gracie is an amazing dog.  Sweet.  Intelligent.  Calm.  Has let kittens sleep in her food bowl, kids lie on her, hamsters balance on her head.  But she’s the sixth boxer our family has had over the past fifty years.  They dash.  We have lever door handles in our house, and that good dog Gracie can pop a door and be off in seconds.

What do we feel when our dogs or kids do something we don’t want them to do, like the dog dashing off just as I need to take the kids to school?  Fear, anxiety, embarrassment, frustration.

Call the dog while fearing she will keep running, and she’ll keep running.  Walk after the dog and she’ll think we’re off on a great game of chase.  She has my attention.

What dog training taught me: tell her to sit and don’t walk toward her until she obeys.  Or call her once, then turn my back on her and walk in the direction I expect her to go.

Give the command and then – in both words and action – move on as if you consider it a done-deal.

What I got from dog training that I might not have gotten from parenting advice is the combination of words and action.  Dogs respond blatantly to body language, forcing us to become aware of silent conflicts in what we say to them.  If I ask my dog to come, but walk toward her, I’ve told her I don’t think she’ll come.  If I ask her to get back but then push her off, I’ve told her she doesn’t have to listen to words and only has to move if shoved.  If I ask my kids to go to bed, and ask it and ask it and ask it but they don’t actually have to go to bed until I stand up and turn out the lights to go to bed myself, I’ve told them to ignore my words (my boys’ late night reluctance is their parallel to Gracie’s dashes).

Dog training asks owners to be clear and consistent. Ask them to do things you know them capable of doing. Repeat the request only once. Expect action so confidently you could turn your back and walk away.

That simple physical stance of back turning fascinates me.  In dog lingo, if my back is turned to my dog, she is instantly curious to see what I’m up to.  If I face her, then she is what I’m up to.  If I tell her to do something then move on, I’ve taken away any curiosity over whether or not she will do it. It’s a done deal.  All curiosity has moved elsewhere.

Oddly enough, as much as I value eye contact with my boys, it works with kids too.  A back can’t be argued with.  A back isn’t watching to see if you will listen.  A back says, Oop, she really means it, we better get going. I do use it that literally sometimes with my boys, although more often it is metaphorical: I move on in tone of voice, the focus of my attention, the next point in conversation, the lack of repeating and waiting.

Yes, clearly, dog parents are far and above superior to human parents.

Right.  What other culture will be next in the Journal’s series?

American, Chinese, French, Dog, British, Canadian or Italian (the last three being nationality of the dog trainers I learned from), we all have effective approaches with children, and those that are less effective.  For me, what’s key is not just keeping calamari and ripped napkins off the floor in those brief years they are toddlers, but keeping eye on what will make them good citizens and companions in the longer years ahead.

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Oh sweet pete… forgot to move the elf

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In the meantime

Having started a new teaching job this past fall, sometimes making notes on 25 essays a night in addition to life with my own little monkeys at home, there’s been no time for posts here this semester.  In all I’ve experienced during an intense few months, so many ideas are collecting to share.  I’ll allow time for reflection, then look forward to posting.  In the meantime, seems like a moment to really let pictures “say a thousand words”!

copyright Elissa Thompson; no use without written permission

Negotiating to get two sno cones with the last 3 carnival tickets, while explosions cloud the sunset from a World War II dogfight reenactment on the runway behind them. (copyright protected; no use without written permission)

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It seems Chowder is good for something

 My son fell asleep asking me: What is marmalade?…What is endive?… What is kimche?… What is gazpacho?… What is schnitzel?… What is panini?…

Right at the point I was getting impressed with his sudden culinary acumen, I put two and two together: they are all the names of characters on an annoying Cartoon Network cartoon.

I hate the cartoon.  I’m up for a good cartoon as much as anybody, but I hate this one’s plots, the characters, the voices, the animation style.

But for what it’s worth, it started a conversation.

My boys now know that marmalade is a kind of jam made with citrus rind, most traditionally eaten by the British, harkening from the years the Brits built their empire in places that had them wondering what could be made with orange peels and sent home without rotting.  They know mom was researching India last year and say it a few times: that the Brits probably liked eating marmalade in India.  Could be.  They put it together, how some foods came about because people needed a way to preserve them from rot (and say this with some sadness, considering the periodic loss of their beloved but highly fragile berries).

They know that endive is a kind of lettuce, and that their mother knows little more about it – and that it is okay to not know something and not really need to care about it, and also know where to find information should one suddenly wonder.

To that end, they know from Wikipedia that kimche is a fermented vegetable dish, staple to Korean diets.  They know what it looks like and its healthful benefits for its high concentration of antioxidants and vitamin C, and that we agree it would be a cute name for a kitten.

They know gazpacho is a cold vegetable soup that their Mimi likes to make and serve by the pool in the summer. 

They know that gazpacho is a Spanish word, and that knowing the etymology of words for foods opens doors into the story of where the food was first eaten – or of the explorers who came upon the food, fell in love and brought it home to future fame.  They like adventure and the idea that food has a story – that the Arabs might have brought gazpacho to Spain makes their eyes widen, as if a canteen of soup sloshed in the pockets of the Prince of Persia himself.

They know that schnitzel is Austrian and fun to say, and that wiener schnitzel (breaded and fried veal scallop served with a wedge of lemon) was the one thing I reliably ate at every dinner when I was first pregnant with my oldest son and traveling with family through Austria and southern Germany.  They know that danka means “thank you” and bitta means “it’s nothing” in southern Germany, where their Papa once lived as a bar tender and ski bum after Vietnam – and like to say “danka” and “bitta,” when they remember to, because it feels like a family secret. 

They know that panini is an Italian word for a sandwich made from a small roll, usually sliced in half and grilled, and that Papa really likes his panini press.   

And they know that bread itself is one of the most basic forms of food eaten in cultures throughout the world – and how interesting it is how many of them named bread derivatives of the single, simple word pan.   And how some other words are like that, too – how in so many cultures the word for “mother” is something close to “mama,” no matter how different the rest of the language sounds, and how supposedly “mm-a” is the first sound babies are able to make, so don’t you wonder that all the cultures came up with the same name because all those babies made the first same sound? 

And they know that –ini or -ino on the end of an Italian word means “little,” just like –ette does in French or –ito in Spanish.  Which isn’t something mind boggling.  Knowing the diminutive suffix won’t take the place of their language classes in school.  It won’t get them a translator job with the United Nations.

Sooner or later they would have been served a meal and put it together that panini is a crusty sandwich.  They could have gone a lifetime without knowing the meaning of kimche, schnitzel or gazpacho – and asked a nearby waiter if that moment of need presented itself. 

They didn’t learn anything they really needed to know or are even likely to remember.

But we had a conversation together, the three of us, falling asleep on a lazy summer night.  They learned that I think it’s funny, the silly things they say just before falling asleep.  And they know how good it feels, falling asleep while laughing over something together, no matter what that something might be or what goofy cartoon it might have come from.

Sante, my little chefs!  Now turn off the TV.

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Use your head to save your heels

 A little shout-out to my mother and grandmother, today. 

I have a thing about wanting to raise boys who will be good to us and to each other now, sure, but will also grow up to be good husbands someday. 

My grandmothers and mother were/are much better housekeepers than I am. 


Shuffling through our imperfectly clean house, I hear them talk to me sometimes, in the words they used when I was a girl.

“Use your head to save your heels,” Grandma Field would say.  “If you are going upstairs, take something with you that needs to go up there.”

My boys hate this.  There are times they have been known to change rooms or floors, to keep out of my sight.  Tough luck, right?

I was a heinous room-wrecker as a child.  (Mom, I will ask you not to post testament to the things found under my bed or how deep the drifts of things could pile on my bedroom floor.) 

But my mother was smart.  It is too daunting to tell a child, “Go clean your room.”  It will never get done.  You will find them in there hours later, lost in the piles, not sure where to start.

Instead, she used this trick: she would say, “Go put away 10 things.”  Or twenty.  Or thirty.

At one point she confessed her intention: that once you’d gotten to ten, chances are you’d keep going and do another five, or maybe clean the whole thing.  It might just get you past the intimidation of getting started.

But even if you only did those ten (or maybe twenty or thirty) things, it would be an improvement.  Later, she might say it again.  “Okay, go put away ten more things.”

When I moved out on my own (I’ll ask my college roommates to not post testament to how I could sprawl my things about our house… and let’s not even talk about handwashing dishes), my mother counseled something even wiser:  make it a habit.

Every time you go into a room, put away ten things. 

Combined with Grandma Field’s head-save-your-heels: every time you go up or down stairs, or from bedroom to kitchen, or car to house, look for something to take with you.

So, a short blog to say this was my boys this morning.  Sitting in the fort they had built out of blankets and chairs and couch cushions, joined together to conquer a particular challenge in Lego Star Wars on the Wii, I had them stop.  Considering the expansive square footage of the fort, combined with their earlier activities of eating munchies in the fort’s cantina, spilling out Star Wars characters to find a missing head and digging to find just the right Lego pieces, I said, “You need to take a break.  I want you each to put away 50 things.”

“Ugh!  Mom!!”  I am not always loved <grin>.

“That’s just a start.  Later, I’d like you to do 100.”

The Wii was quickly paused.  “Can we just do 50?” they asked.


Lucky, isn’t it, to have so many smart folks to draw on, when our own talents hit their limits.

I can see the pattern in the rug, again.  Ahh.

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Wild Boys

I am a younger sister to an older brother who, to this day, I consider to be one of the coolest people on earth.

As kids, we were close in age (as close as possible without being twins) and seemingly understood each other well.  That is, I agreed his GI Joes were awesome, we cracked up hysterically over the same cartoons and both went wide-eyed over Batman or 007’s cool gear.  With family, we camped and fished and sailed and skied and rode horses and swam together.    So, fully ignoring his complete lack of interest in my dolls or anything pink, I was well into adulthood still assuming boys and girls – at least those of a common spirit – were pretty much the same.

For the scope of this blog, we’ll gloss over the first several years of marriage when I thought men and women thought the same, or those first pregnant months when I thought his feelings on becoming a father or experiencing pregnancy would be identical to mine.

Point is, having wanted to hang out with my cool brother, I grew up with a bit of Kid Sister Syndrome.  Having sometimes felt left out, I was personally vested in wanting to believe boys and girls think and develop alike.  My mother would push books at me like Men Are From Mars Women Are From Venus, and I’d be willing to accept the differences, but resist the book, wanting instead to focus on the ways we connect.

In early parenthood, it was easy to continue in this belief.  By chance, my first son’s friends were all girls until he began school.  Like my childhood memory of  my brother, my son’s toddlerhood girlfriends shared his humor, his antics, his playground acrobatics, and even toys equalized a bit at that age.

It was when my girlfriends and I began to seek out parenting books to guide us in our first behavior issues that I remember seeing a whole shelf of books addressing how to raise boys.

I laugh at myself remembering this: it actually offended me.

I was conditioned to hours spent with a sweet three year-old who picked flowers for me, whose favorite colors were orange and red, with a sunny sweet little smile.  The boys pictured on the covers of those books looked like thugs.  Another kind of boy, I thought – maybe not that clearly, but maybe I was thinking those were books for people raising tough kids: playground bullies, gang members.

We all shudder a little (don’t we?) as new parents – when our babies are still babies and we can’t yet connect their tenderness to the sturdier children they will become.  I was still proud of his Beatrix-Potterish baby bedroom then.  I could still remember our horror the first time he was bitten by a mosquito.

He was maybe five when I started to get glimmers of the boy he needed to grow into.

Somewhere along the line I read the July 2007 article in Time magazine, The Myth About Boys.  The boys in the article were bare-chested in cut off shorts, swung from ropes suspended from trees to plunge into a mountain pond.  They threw rocks.  They were covered in mud.  It was a summer camp designed to let them do just that.  Not because these were mud-rock-tree-rope boys, but because the camp (and the author) suggested boys need this kind of outlet for expression.

I might have looked from the article to my sweet son, sitting in his cheerful red and blue bedroom beneath the rosy poster of Babar the elephant flying a red biplane, my son cozily snuggling his pet rabbit.  It might have been a hmmm… moment – one of those times something strikes inside you, as if a tap on the shoulder to your inner being, and gets filed away for later as “that’s intriguing.”

And it might have struck me again halfway through kindergarten, when he was sent home with a discipline chart from his teacher.  A paper sheet inside a manila envelope that went back and forth between school and home, to motivate him to sit still in his chair while working and not be distracted by the computer centers or the children building with blocks or the quirky boy who liked to pretend to be a table, the preposterousness of which sent my son into peals of laughter that did not help him focus on arranging his cut-out words to be pasted as a sentence.

Somewhere in that year, I might have uttered hmmm once again – this time with a different insight than before.  Boys are different.  Boys have special needs – that need to be honored.

This isn’t a post that will give conclusions to that line of thinking.  It is one that observes when it started.

Understanding boys – my boys, all boys, in all their surprisingly complex wonder – is a theme I come back to often.  I was shocked to realize then, in that year when he was five, how little I understood.  How could I not have understood?  My brother and I were practically twins.  He is someone whose tastes and hobbies I’d happily share.  My father and I share common sense of humor.  I love the business sense of the men in my family.  My very first best friend, whose friendship affected what I looked for in every male relationship after that, was a boy.  I had boys as best friends in middle school, high school, college, as an adult.  I love soldiers and James Bond and cars (ok, so hockey and hunting things, not so much).  How could I not understand boys?

But I didn’t.

And I love that this single aspect of parenting has made me stretch so much.

I should say that, more than the Time article, I give credit to a single book I came across that kindergarten year (having bought it from the shelf of thug-books, but not read it until, in a serendipitous moment, I discovered it in my driver door pocket at the exact moment I needed it):  Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys.

And I leave it at that, for now – as an observation, an aha and confession of a gulf I crossed – knowing that it’s a theme I will come back to as time goes by.

Oh, and worth noting – it is from this I drew inspiration in designing the header for this site: my boys, being wild boys.  For some reason it gives me pride to see it in them.

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Parenting gets existential.

I was the first one pregnant in our generation, on either side of our family.  From those first weeks of confessing it, I ran the steep hill of all the things I would learn about what it took to parent.  Diapers, pack and plays, how to know if it’s sick.

And then they grow up a little.

You work on which vacuum has large enough bore to suck up Cheerios without clogging, teaching yourself to say sugar! instead of shit, and truisms like “hands are not for hitting.”

Mysteriously, I discovered I absolutely love parenting.

Not the least of which is the way its existential challenges never cease to amaze. 

This month’s challenge: answering the question, “Mom, what is a hippie?”

My five-year-old said, “It means ‘an old man’.” 

His eight-year-old brother corrected him:  “No, it’s a teenager with long hair…  and funny clothes… and…”  He accurately described Shaggy, from Scooby Do, then faltered, breaking down to ask, “Mom, what is a hippie?”

And here parenting becomes existential – because even in their little boy way, they were grasping at something they could not articulate but could sense.  They got that there was some socio-political, socio-historical implication behind the meaning.  That it signified something they did not understand for there to be a hippie in their cartoon. 

I begin to answer, but it’s the ubiquitous sound of one hand clapping.  Any explanation of what a hippie is means nothing without understanding the context of the culture they were rebelling against.  In our current environment where the two long-haired boys on my sons’ baseball teams are the sons of fashionista mamas, not grunge, how can they get what a statement it was for a guy to let his hair and beard grow shaggy in an era where hair didn’t touch one’s collar?  Where men and women still wore hats in public, and my grandmother and even my mother still carried spotless white gloves.   Our kids know hippie images as neon flowers on paper cups and napkins at the party store, or the peace signs in rhinestones on the neighbor’s jeans, without seeing them as re-imagined icons of what was once a radical attempt to move toward a gentler, more natural way of being, at a time of corporatization and war.  How do you explain the experience that I remember intangibly as paper butterflies on my young aunt’s wall, fanning out above her black and white poster of “A Bridge Over Troubled Water”? 

In attempting to find simple words to explain it, my understanding grows expansive in memory of history lessons and personal experience growing up in the 70s, touched with hindsight and the newer context of the world we have become since then.  I was not a hippie or flower child or child of hippies; my parents were primly republican.  As a child, I associated hippies with broken bottles on the pavement at our playground.  Yet here I am, forty, riding along in my SUV with little boys rattling about in the back (who are fascinated we did not have to wear seatbelts as kids), and feeling a wan tenderness in memory of avocado kitchen appliances and trying to remember what the whole affection for rainbows was about.

My world becomes larger with children.  Not just because more square-footage is required to be able to move around highchairs and train tables and strewn Legos, but because the whole expanse of the universe is new again in their eyes. 

Soil that clearly belongs nowhere but between the roots of the hedges and flowers outside is now meant to be dug up, spread apart, carried about and stored in little containers that just would not have occurred to you as meant for analyzing dirt.  That is, not until you have a playdate with brightly dressed, prim little girls who open the little play kitchen and find it caked with dried spattered mud and your son smiles and explains it to her — proudly pointing out how when he shook the soil in a jar with water, the mulch, peat and sand separated into layers, creating a distinct grey, tan and brown rainbow that he’d just been dying to show someone.  He discovered density, you think with pride, at the same time you apologetically wash away the filth and reassure the little girls that there are clean toys here somewhere.

Life is a mystery.  Full of dark turns and surprises and joys and tragedies and things so beautiful and amazing.  You go on vacation and see a sunset or painting or giant gorge in the earth so startlingly beautiful that you honestly could not have borne seeing it without someone meaningful beside you to touch and say, “Look at that!” 

Children find this not only on vacation, but in the mundane, the sagging days of life that might otherwise be only about when to fit in grocery shopping and whether a successful day at work was enough to qualify for bonus and if you will be able to sleep soundly tonight. 

“Look!” they say, all the time.  “What is that?  Look!”  They pick out the plainest flower at the market and fall in love.  You find rocks in the bottom of your purse, a wilted  feather left for you beside your bed, stray bits of hardware clanking in your dryer.

And they take what we have known always in our lives – something as irrelevant and silly as a hippie – and hand us a whole cosmos of depth and meaning to wrestle with. 

“What is a hippie?” I repeated, ready to say something about how people sometimes choose their clothes to express their feelings about the world, or maybe share something about what it was like to be a child in the 70s, or how the times then were or weren’t like our times now. 

But they were laughing at something.

Just at the point they had me thoroughly wrapped up in the riddle of it, the boys moved on.

In the same effortless way they expand our lives with depth and complexity, they model for us simplicity.  My boys decided, simply, that “hippie” will be their favorite new word for anything weird… whether or not they really get what it means.

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