My Dinner With the Constitution

We got my daughter’s grades back. The worst remarks she got were in her gardening class. The teacher isn’t happy about the fact that she doesn’t always dress for gardening, and it’s apparent that because she’s outside digging in the dirt, she forgets that this is a class and she’s being judged on her behavior and participation.

We had a talk about what she might do to bring that grade up. What she said she hated most was when the teacher asked her “What are you grateful for.” It was the same question every time, and she always gave the same answer: photosynthesis. She knew the teacher was unhappy about the fact that she didn’t give the question more thought, but she didn’t care. Just being asked the question made her unhappy.

I understand that unhappiness. I’ve long been an outspoken opponent of what I call “that kumbaya bullshit” that one is asked to participate in during corporate team-building exercises. It’s not that I am not grateful for things, nor is my daughter. It’s the forced revelation that galls me. It’s none of my boss’s business what I like or don’t like about my workplace. I will do my work to the best of my ability, and if I feel there are things to appreciate, I will appreciate them. If I feel those things should be shared, I’ll share. If not, you can’t force me.

I told my daughter that the fifth amendment to the constitution protected her from ever having to say anything that would get her in trouble, and that the next time her gardening teacher asks her to give an answer to a question like “What are you grateful for?” she has my permission to say that she invokes her fifth amendment right to avoid self-incrimination. She said her teacher would likely make her to talk to the administrator, and I told her that’s fine. I stand willing to educate anyone about how the constitution applies in everyday life.

As we ate, it became apparent the kid wasn’t going to eat her veggies. After being commanded, she said that she was going to invoke her constitutional rights.

“Which ones?” I asked.

“I invoke my seventh amendment rights!”

“Great! You’ve invoked the right to a trial by jury. That means that we can ask all these good people here in the restaurant whether you should eat your veggies. If they come back with a yes, you eat them or I send you to jail.” She figured she would have 12% of the restaurant crowd on her side. She took a bite of carrots.

“Okay, I want to plead the eighteenth amendment!”

“Perfect! This means that you will not be allowed to drink hard liquor with your dinner. That’s okay, at the age of 12, that wasn’t likely anyway. But 21 is the magic number, when you turn 21, the 21st amendment, which repeals the prohibition of the 18th amendment, kicks in!”

“I want to plead the ninth amendment!”

“This means that any rights not specifically guaranteed by the federal government are up to the states to protect. The feds may say that children are required to eat their veggies, but it’s up to the states to enforce that requirement.”

“I’m invoking the fourteenth amendment, then.”

“That’s a GREAT one! The fourteenth amendment means that you are entitled to equal protection under the law. It means that any person in the United States is entitled to the same legal protections – trial by jury, ability to attain citizenship, constitutional protections – that everyone else gets. And that includes children. And this is why, when you say in class that you are invoking your fifth amendment rights, those rights are real. They can’t punish you without being in violation of the law.”

I can tell you one thing. She’s grateful to have parents who engage her in adult conversation. By the end of dinner, she was fully owning her rights.

Whose Idea Was This?

When I was a kid, my room was a mess. I’ve always been a packrat, and every treasure – every rock, twist-tie, shell, scrap of paper, plastic gewgaw – ended up somewhere on my floor. And since I spent a fair amount of time outside, I was always tracking dirt into my room.

There were four kids in my family, and none of us was any great shakes at cleaning. And since my mother was a single parent with a full-time job who was also pursuing her bachelor’s degree (and therefore only able to fulfill her duties as cook, chauffer and nurse, but not maid), not only were all our rooms a mess, but our bathrooms, kitchen and dining room were a mess as well. The only reason the living room wasn’t a disaster was because we never used that room for anything. We came and went through the kitchen door.

When I got older, I became conscious that there was shame attached to having a perpetually sticky kitchen table  or socks hanging over the chairs. I tried to keep tidy, but when one acquires slightly more stuff than one’s living arrangements can accommodate, it becomes difficult. Still, it became my obsession. At one point, I had convinced myself that the hallmark of maturity was having a house that was always company-ready.

When I started grad school, my husband quit his job so that I could devote all my time to the work I would have to do. Except that I didn’t set myself a schedule for writing, so I relegated it to the time between chores. As a result, my first semester I didn’t do as much new writing as I had hoped. When I got back from my second residency, my husband sat me down and said “I’m going to be handling things. You’re to work and nothing else.”

For a week and a half now, I’ve let my husband take care of the housework. There are dishes on the kitchen counter, unopened mail on the kitchen table, things everywhere that could stand tidying. The place isn’t in squalor, by any means, but let’s just say that the Queen would not be impressed. I came out of my office the other day and noticed the stuff on the kitchen table and thought to myself “Why did I think it was so important to keep this place spotless?”

Obviously, my husband doesn’t base his opinion of me on whether his socks stick to the floor. My children didn’t think I was a bad parent when the kitchen table had to be cleared of unopened mail and other stuff before we ate dinner. If my mother were to come over to my house right this second, she wouldn’t love me any less if there were dust on all my framed family photos. So, why was I always so wound up about this?

I think it’s high time to consign this obsession with tidiness at all costs to the heap of stuff I’ve outgrown and no longer miss, along with my need to keep twist-ties, scraps of paper and plastic gewgaws.

Sing Out Loud, Sing Out Strong

My nephew called me today to tell me about his grades this semester. He’s been working for the past 8 years as a sort of cabinet refinisher, and he told me that he looked at guys who’d been doing that kind of work for decades, and realized that they all had the same glassy-eyed, brain-damaged affect of long-time drug users. My nephew has a wife and two small kids, and he realized that he couldn’t afford to stay in a job that would leave him a mental cripple. The problem was, he’d never been exactly a great student. He wasn’t very motivated in high school, and even at the job he has now, he’s been working at the same level, without promotion, for 8 years. He hadn’t quit in protest because he needed the money, and had begun to believe that he couldn’t do anything else.

He decided to try nursing school, realizing that he first needed to complete about a year and a half’s worth of prerequisites in math and sciences. He enrolled at a local community college, and from the minute he told his boss “I can’t work late anymore because I have school,” his idea of himself began to change.

He was calling me because he was disappointed in his English grade. Until now, he’d been getting all As and high Bs, but now he’d gotten a 79.8% in the class, which translates to a C. He was disappointed, and he felt that he’d let everyone down. He told me that he’d been getting a solid B until the last class where everyone did a presentation. My nephew is prone to panic attacks, and has been on medication to treat them. He’s also got nerve damage from a near-fatal surgical accident that mean that his speech can sometimes be halting, and he occasionally stutters. The thing is, his mind is as sharp as can be – it just sounds like he’s a little slow. I suspect this is at the heart of his failure to be promoted at his current job, or the fact that the family’s expectations of him have been low. He went on to give me a litany of other ways in which the teacher had undermined his grade – telling them to use MLA format for website citations and then not accepting those citations, telling him that he wouldn’t be missing anything important if he skipped class to go to his wife’s grandmother’s funeral, then docking him points for it.

But I told him to write to his teacher. Tell her that he’s disappointed in his grade, and that because of things that were held against him in error, he got a C when he deserved a B. The worst that could happen was that the teacher would say “No, my grade stands,” and then he’s no worse off than he is now. In terms of overall grade point averaging, there’s not a lot of difference between a 79.8% and an 80%, but emotionally, a B is much better than a C.

It made me think about a seminar I took more than twenty years ago. I was doing childcare, and I was the head of the largest professional childcare association in the state of Arizona – an organization I had founded myself. The seminar was meant to make us think of ourselves as businesswomen, and to hone our business skills. At the end, we were each handed a survey sheet that asked us to grade ourselves on our performance in the class. “If we’re grading ourselves,” I thought, “I’m giving myself an A+!” The instructor collected the surveys and then, without looking at them, told us that whatever grade we had given ourselves would be the grade he gave us. Many of the women expressed dismay, having given themselves Bs or Cs.

It turns out that a lot of people go through life undervaluing themselves and their own efforts, thinking that it’s up to other people to notice when they’re doing well and to reward them accordingly. I was not raised in a family that lavished praise on others. I learned early on that if I wanted to hear good things about my performance and my choices, I had better say them myself. It stood me in good stead later, when I worked at an electronics firm and began and ended every conversation with my boss with “And you should be paying me more.” It worked – I got more raises, more often than my co-workers. It helped me later in my career when I would work into every argument with my boss the phrase “I’m not wrong,” and mostly, she believed it.

I’m not saying that blowing one’s own trumpet is always a good thing. The people in my family are a smug group, and can come off as obnoxious (I’m not naming names here, and it’s unlikely that the guilty parties would even recognize themselves). But I’m saying that if you believe in yourself and what you’re doing, it behooves you to speak up about it. I’m hoping that my nephew’s teacher sees the time and effort he’s put into his classes, the fact that he’s raising two young children, working full time and still going to school, and cuts him the slack he deserves. He’s not one of the insufferable members of the family, but I think it’s time he learned how to sing his own praises.

What Is Revealed/What Is Hidden

There are facts about my life that everyone knows. My parents divorced when I was very young. My mother was a single parent for most of my life. Only one of the four of us siblings didn’t finish college. My extended family is close emotionally, although not geographically. Those facts are generic, bland, and could be said of millions of other people. They don’t challenge anyone, they don’t embarrass anyone, they wouldn’t hurt anyone if they came out in public.

I’ve been talking to a few people about parts of my life that are not so well known. The things about my life that aren’t well known aren’t historical facts (sure, our family has its share of illegitimate babies, extramarital affairs and homosexuals, but everyone knows about them and nobody cares). Mostly, they’re about my own opinions of the things that happened to me as a kid.

From the time I was very small, my family has classified me as “dramatic,” their way of saying that I’ve always blown things out of proportion. My childhood was a really awful time that I was lucky to survive. I don’t recall it as being happy, and while I have a hard time remembering things like birthday parties or family outings, I recall in stark clarity childhood slights, fights and wounds. I contrast my view of my own childhood with my younger sister’s view of hers. She once claimed that she “raised herself,” but she may have amended that view now that she’s older. She was outgoing, popular, always the center of attention. When it was just my sister and me living with my father and stepmother, it was crystal clear that they liked her and had no idea what to do with me.

I’ve told people stories about my childhood, about things that I’ve been through, and they all say “You should write a book!” That’s true. I should write a book, but the book I should write is fictional and has nothing to do with the things that I’ve lived through. I can’t write those things, because I don’t have the courage to say thing things I know about my family to the rest of the world. Mostly, it’s because I know terrible things about the people I love, and yet I love them. Truly, deeply, in a give-my-life-for-them kind of way. I love my family in a way I feel as a physical sensation in my chest. It’s the stillness between heartbeats and the peak and trough of every breath. And yet, I know these awful things.

But there’s the flip side of this knowledge. A while back, I recounted something to my younger sister from our childhood, and she told me that she didn’t believe it had ever happened. I could have pulled rank on her and said “You’re three and a half years younger than me, you don’t remember,” but she’s the sort of self-confident person who wouldn’t believe me. I don’t think that the thing I recounted was anything of consequence. I could never tell her anything of consequence because of the fear that she would tell me it had never happened. I can’t stand the thought of having the defining moments of my life denied, because it would be too much like having my own pain denied.

Maybe if I put my family in a room, like they do at the end of television mysteries, and went around the room saying “YOU threw spoons at me when we were little,” and “YOU sided with your friends against me,” and “YOU told Mom and Dad that I’d done stuff that I hadn’t so I’d get into trouble,” pointing my finger in their faces as I paced around the room, the other hand held behind my back, maybe if I did that, we could all talk about it and what it meant to me. Maybe they would understand that the things they experienced as good-natured teasing hurt me deeply. That their labels for me – “lazy,” “weird” – defined in a negative way how I saw myself for most of my childhood.

So in the meantime, I write fiction. I don’t make my characters autobiographical, and I don’t base them on anyone in my family. If you want to dissect my fiction for clues into my early life, I will tell you not to bother. The truth you’re looking for is both more and less than you think it might be.

 

Day 9: Are We There Yet?

Thursday was easily the most emotional day I had. First, the Pirate admitted that on his way home from taking our daughter to school, he heard a song that we had first heard together, and it made him so sad that he almost had to pull over. Of course, while he was telling me this at lunchtime, I got all weepy, and that just set him off again. The lectures were interesting (including another great revision lecture), but the best one by far was a lecture called “Destroying the Book” by one of the outgoing cohort, Raymond Gaston. Its premise was that the form we think of as “book” is a recent construct created by current printing technology. His definition of “post-modern” was a thing that was easily digitizeable and replicable, and therefore “post-post-modern” books are things that cannot be digitized and replicated, such as Anne Carson’s work Nox, a handmade “book” consisting of yards of accordion-folded paper containing the epitaph she wrote for her brother’s death. The class spent time creating visual art to accompany a reading by one of the other students. I was flattered that the author of the work asked me if she could keep mine.

I hurried home Thursday night so that I could finish writing up my “project period contract,” a list of the work that I’m going to accomplish between now and May 18th (the end of the marking period). I’ve committed to between 20 and 25 pages of new material every month, as well as two book annotations (I have a reading list of 10 books), a bunch of online meetings, and anything that I need to do for my field study (you’ll hear more about this later, as I’m not sure we’re allowed to talk about it yet). I wrote everything up, and then sat back to talk to the Pirate. We’ve been using Facetime, and it’s been mostly amazing, allowing me to see my adorable baby’s face and the Pirate’s handsome dimples every night before I hit the sack. This time, though, I started misting up, then the Pirate started choking up, and before I knew it, we were both crying.

And then I went to bed.

That Holiday Spirit

This Thanksgiving, the Pirate and I loaded the girls and my mother up into a borrowed VW microbus and made the drive from our house to Phoenix. We left after school on Tuesday, and drove for 13+ hours. With the time change, it was early morning when we arrived, and we were exhausted, but there were all the pre-Thanksgiving things (shopping, cooking) that needed doing.

We ended up going to bed at the normal time, despite having missed an entire night’s sleep, and then getting up early the next day in order to start the cooking (we did all the driving, but Mom did all the cooking). The girls stayed at my dad’s house, along with a whole bunch of other folks, having a fabulous time. So fabulous, in fact, that they didn’t want to come back to my mother’s house. They were too busy hanging out with other kids, chasing the dogs, doing all that other silly stuff. We drove home Saturday, another marathon trip delayed by horrible holiday traffic, and fell into bed at midnight on Saturday night.

Sunday, we got up to deal with the dishes we had left in the sink before we went on our trip. The cat gak where our cat haaked up a hairball all over the leather couch (pretty sure that’s a good reason for putting an animal down), the huge tumbleweeds of cat hair blowing around the floor, the laundry…I told the kid that she had to practice her viola and clean her room, and the kid yelled at me “I THOUGHT THE FIRST DAY BACK FROM VACATION WAS SUPPOSED TO BE RELAXING!”

Obviously, I have been falling down on my motherly duties. She has so much to learn. The holidays are not at all about relaxing. They’re about putting in face time with relatives you never see so that you can make awkward conversations and remind them of past embarrassing incidents. It’s about establishing the family pecking order as evidenced by who travels where (it’s a complicated algorithm involving whose kids are doing how well in school, who has how much time off from a job that earns them how much, who didn’t think they’d be able to make it but made it anyway, who actually cooked versus who stopped by the Safeway…) and why.

I’m halfway to solving this problem, though. The Pirate and I just bought a place in the city, and my mother will be moving in. EVERYONE will be coming out to see Grandma for the holidays, which means that I’ll never have to travel again.

WIN!