Friday, June 24, 2011

In My Most Humble but Strong Opinion

My dad was known for being an opinionated man. He didn't mince words, but he did manage to mince a few relationships along the way. I always admired that about him: his ability to feel strongly enough about something to speak up and then not regret a single word he spoke. I have a nephew just like him whom I admire quite a bit for that same reason.

Me? I try to be diplomatic. I weigh virtually every word before it comes out of my mouth. I have a filter through which you could strain the finest of teas. Do I pretend to approve of something when I don't? No. But I do hold back more often than one might imagine.

Getting to my point: a friend sent me a link to this article this morning. He knows I write young adult (though "publish" isn't part of the definition of "write" for me quite yet) and, more importantly really, that I read it.

Now, I'm not quite as plugged into the YA writing community as I was even a year ago. I won't get into why because it's irrelevant. But I did forward the article to a good friend of mine, Brigid Kemmerer, who is coming out with her own amazing YA novel in May of 2012 (and I can't tell you how excited I am because it would make you all sad, honestly, to understand the level of my vicarious living). She replied to tell me she'd read the article already and that quite the hubbub was brewing over it. I hadn't heard a word about said hubbub ([1] see above line re: being unplugged, and [2] I feel about 112 when I say the word hubbub but can't seem to help myself).

And my response to her is below. This is my opinion. But it's a strong one. You can blame my father.

I just don't have the energy to get worked up over much these days. What's the point?

And all writers prey on their audiences. It's the nature of the business. You go after the readers you want. These particular authors were just pointing out how going after teen readers might seem a little icky, but at least they (the authors) are appreciated there. If anything, the writers were ragging on literary fiction.

It's also all about reliving high school. Not a single YA writer out there (myself included) can say they're not thinking about
being a teenager when they're writing about teenagers. To go back and do things differently--to be different--is virtually everyone's fantasy, and that's where the obsession with the paranormal comes in. Wanting to do it all over again is, by definition, fantastical. I mean, come on . . . people have been obsessed with youth since time began. We're just writing about it more now, and the thought of a bunch of 40-somethings out there doing this is comical in a pathetic (pathetic in the best possible way, of course, because those who write YA also read YA!) sort of way. I can admit that. These authors are admitting that. They're laughing at themselves, not the industry. They're being self-deprecating, not insulting.

As for the authors' assertions that the story is what matters and not the writing, of
course that's what matters! No one is calling Stephenie Meyer a literary genius. No one is calling J.K. Rowling that either, for that matter. Teens are much more caught up in their story, not how their story is told. It's a selfish audience being written to, so you write what they want to read. They want to focus on the angst of being them and on the necessary microcosms they build for themselves so their drama can continue to matter more than the impending apocalypse. If you're a good writer on top of that--on top of creating a great story--then so much the better, b/c then you'll get the reviews and the adult audience as well.

The people getting worked up over this article simply have misplaced priorities, in my opinion. In a world where most teenagers can't afford to buy a book or eat lunch before reading one or even read at all, getting upset about someone saying something that might possibly be interpreted as insulting to those writing for teens is absurd in the most selfish sense possible. If you're able to write and to publish and simply do what you love, then god bless. Seriously. Maybe these are the authors who write YA not because they want to relive high school but because they never really left it in the first place.

Monday, June 13, 2011

In Case Anyone Is Watching . . .

I would make a terrible nurse. It's not the blood and various other bodily fluids and broken bones that would get to me; it's my impatience with complaints about stubbed toes, hangnails, splinters, slivers, and minor cuts, scratches, and bruises. Sure, nurses don't have to exactly deal with these sorts of complaints on a daily basis, but it's the thought of having to deal with any molehill of a problem blown into a mountain that would show my lack of bedside manner and get me fired if not sued.

My six-year-old just came in a few minutes ago to whine about his finger, which had apparently been attacked by a small stick earlier today. I sent him back outside with a brusque wave. My daughter, 30 seconds later, started into hysterics over . . . what? I don't know. I stopped her from finishing her sentence. She's outside playing now too. That, or she's up in her room composing a letter to Santa to ask for a mother who knows how to ooh and aah in sympathy more regularly.

Let me tell you about how sickness was handled in my house growing up: Quarantine. Any of us got sick? We spent the fevered period in our bedrooms. With the door shut. When I was a junior in high school, I got a terrible sore throat. My mother's solution was (and I quote), "Stand in the hot shower with your mouth open. The steam will make it feel better. You're going to school." This routine went on for three days until Mom relented and took me to the doctor. I had strep throat, of course.

At 19, I had a lump removed: pre-cancerous. If my parents were concerned, I don't recall them letting on. I'm not saying they weren't concerned--only that they didn't fawn over me or coddle me or make me feel like the world was going to end, and I didn't mind the lack of attention. I didn't want it, honestly. Had they been more alarmist in their reaction, I would have, well, felt more alarmed.

About a year into my marriage, my husband caught on to my feelings about "in sickness and in health." Just because I'm all for sticking by him in times of sickness, I don't mean right by him. I mean in the next room or farther down the hall or downstairs while he stays upstairs and only calls for me when he really, really, really needs something. He was a little shocked at this revelation. In fact, he kind of panicked.

"Please," he said. "Please tell me that when we have children and they get sick, you'll take care of them."

I laughed. "Of course, I will."

He didn't laugh. He went a little paler. "I mean it. You need to promise me."

I laughed again. "Promise you? Do you really think I wouldn't take care of them?"

He still didn't laugh. "Promise me. Promise me you'll take them a cold wet washcloth and make sure they're okay."

So I promised.

My twelve-year-old had some serious kidney problems for seven years before doctors finally diagnosed him correctly. And I was the vision of empathy night after night while he lay in bed next to me, vomiting for hours on end. I was furious and frustrated and just wanted to find a way to make him feel better, which meant I also felt helpless, which, really, is no way for any parent to feel. He had surgery just over two years ago to finally fix the problem. I still look at him in amazement sometimes, immensely grateful those days are over and that he can just be a normal kid now.

When my dad was diagnosed with cancer seven years ago, I felt that same fury, frustration, and helplessness, which is no way for a child to feel either. Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments didn't fix his "problem." He died after ten months of fighting the good fight--but, really, what's good about any fight that ends like that?

I chased my daughter out of the house before I let her finish that sentence a few minutes ago because, as I told her, "You kids are healthy in every way. There's no reason at all for you to complain about the little things in life."

I'm not trying to raise stoic children. I'm not trying to raise children that lack compassion or that are afraid to cry when they fall off their bike or trip up the stairs. I'm trying to raise kids that are grateful for the bruises, scrapes, splinters, and slivers that show they got to spend summer evenings playing in the backyard with each other and with their friends. I'll give them that wet washcloth for their heads or their bloody elbows. But then I'm sending them back outside to play, because they get to go back outside and play.

So in case anyone is watching or listening: I do care about my children's well-being. I care a lot.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Kind Word

A fellow parent called me this morning. She's the kind of parent I say hello to at social events, but we never speak for more than a few minutes. Our daughters (9 years old now) are in the same grade and they were in the same class two years ago. They're also in Brownies together. Otherwise, their paths don't often cross.

So I was surprised by the phone call. She started with, "I just want to bring your attention to something that happened yesterday during the Brownie field trip."

And those of you who are parents can probably imagine what I thought: "Oh, no, what did my daughter do?"

Now, my daughter is a good girl. Truly. She's kind and sweet. She thinks the best of everyone around her. She loves everyone around her, even the mean girls who tell her she's fat or make fun of her for still loving Hello Kitty. She's big on giving people second and third and millionth chances. She wakes up at 6 a.m. every morning because she's excited about what that day holds, even if there's nothing special on our schedule: to her it's all special. She skips down the sidewalk, tripping over her two left feet most days. She laughs until she cries. And she gives hugs because she figures everyone needs them as much as she does.

Still, I braced myself to hear what she might have done yesterday that would warrant a call from another parent, because that's our instinct as parents: to believe the best but to be ready for the worst, because we need to be able to defend our children against the world and to be prepared for our children to have been the one doing the wrong--because that's what we're used to having to do.

It's so easy for the world to spoil kids, to take something wonderful and pure and then slowly or suddenly damage it--to teach them words at six that we didn't hear until we were sixteen, or even to teach them too-common words that make them reassess themselves and others, such as "stupid" and "shut up" and "idiot" and "hate." And there are the actions and attitudes the world teaches them as well: hatred, bigotry, revenge, boastfulness. So we're always on our guard, trying to stifle the parroting nature of a child and begging them and God and whomever else might be listening, "Please, please, let my apple-cheeked daughter stay apple cheeked and innocent." And also, "Just in case she doesn't, help me know how to teach her the right things over and over, again and again."

This mother said, before telling me what happened, that she knows too often she focuses on what her own daughter might be doing wrong. And I felt guilty instantly--guilty for, in spite of knowing how wonderful my daughter is, not praising her enough for her kind heart, guilty for doing the same thing this mother does and the same thing parents everywhere do, whether it's silently or loudly criticizing our children for not working hard enough, not studying hard enough, or not simply trying hard enough.

The reason she called was to tell me how gentle my daughter had been with a friend who was struggling during yesterday's hike. She wanted to let me know she'd seen my daughter doing something good and decent and kind. She made time in her busy morning (I could hear the doorbell and the chaos of kids in the background) to look up my number and to call me. From one mother to another, she wanted to let me know she understood how much we want to know our kids are okay and are doing right, even if our instinct is to fear the opposite.

Our children aren't perfect. And I'm grateful they aren't because then they'd expect us to be as well. But I'm also grateful they have moments of perfection, moments when we can see the clean spots the world has missed and we can be reminded to notice those clean spots and moments more often.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Graduated Eighth Grade Fairy

Still on the topic of my 14-year-old . . .

I went to his eighth-grade graduation ceremony last week. The auditorium was packed--standing room only. Parents, grandparents, siblings, and who knows who else filled the place. I told him on the way that I was the first of my own siblings (there are eight of us) to go to her high-school graduation. To the others, the event was less of an event and more of a reason to stay home and avoid the great hullabaloo. I don't recall much about my graduation except how strange I thought it was to see my classmates crying. I was so happy to be done with high school and so eager to move on to the next stage of my life that my eyes remained completely dry the entire night.

As I sat watching my son on stage, however, tall and handsome in his blue gown, I felt a couple of tears coming on. But I stopped them from actually falling because I realized that if I let myself cry or get emotional over every landmark, big or small, in my children's lives, I'll be a sopping mess by the time my youngest gets married. I decided last week to save my tears for my oldest's high school graduation, and even then, my emotions and I will have to negotiate how much I'll allow. This isn't to say I'm not an emotional person in general. I just have to pace myself. It's about staying sane.

Last night, my son told me his good friend had gotten his graduation gift--his junior high graduation gift: an iPad. I told him that was insane. "Mom, a lot of my friends got gifts like that. iPads, iTouches, $100 bills." I asked him if they'd asked him what he'd gotten. "Yeah. I told them I got a milkshake." And that was true. After graduation, my husband and I asked him if he wanted anything to eat. He wanted McDonald's and all he wanted there was a strawberry milkshake. So he got it, he shared a little with us, and we headed home.

Fortunately, he saw the whole graduation experience as a little nuts. "Why are we celebrating something we should just be expected to do? Graduate from 8th grade." And although I'm sure he'd love an iPad, an iTouch, or a few $100 bills, he doesn't expect any of that--which is a good thing since he won't be getting any of that.

I don't think we're creating a happier generation of children. In fact, I'd go along with those who believe we're creating a more depressed, a more easily disappointed, a more insecure, a more lost, a more confused, a more impatient, a more unsatisfied, and a more frustrated generation of children who will become adults carrying those same "mores" around with them into the work world and into their marriages and families. We're creating a generation of children who appreciated the Tooth Fairy well enough, but now also expect the Skinned Knee Fairy, the Cleaned My Own Room Today Fairy, the Managed To Shower This Morning Fairy, and the Graduated Eighth Grade Fairy. We're rewarding what should be the reward in and of itself. We're telling them that the parent-child relationship is about expectations they can have of us but not the reverse. The chore list on the refrigerator is now ours, and the "I know I disappointed you" admissions are ours.

Which leaves them with what?What do they get to claim as their own?

I'm sure his friends see my husband and me as the mean, stingy, unsupportive parents. And I'm okay with that, since I've never been one to give into peer pressure, whether as a kid or an adult. And if any of his friends' parents make their way here to my blog (which is doubtful) then I hope they're okay with me expressing my (albeit strong) opinion. I'm not saying I'm a better parent, which is good since this isn't a competition. I simply think that, as with our emotions, we need to slow down and pace ourselves before all of us--parents and children alike--end up as one big sopping mess.