Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Dispatch from the Front

We just got back from an all-school field trip. And boy, are my arms tired. And everything else, too.

High point: Just as our (rowdy, antsy, barely-able-to-contain-themselves) group was about to be admitted to the main exhibit, all the lights in the museum went out. Much confusion and bumping into each other and "who are you?" "Who are you?" "Is that you??" ensued as we all tried to identify each other by the light of our forbidden cell phones and the tour-guide wands that the grownups had been given. Only one kid cried.

Another high point: The organizer flagged our bus down as we were about to leave and asked if we could take a few more kids. Several 8th graders trooped on to our bus of 2nd graders and announced, "our bus caught on fire!"

Query: How can I be ready to curl up in a fetal position when all I did all day was sit on a bus and in an IMX movie theatre and occasionally walk slowly from one exhibit to another? And yet, it is so.

For next time: Always bring a box of crackers. Always. Always.

Note to self: Butts! They're funny! Apparently. Also, songs about dead and decomposing moose. Must investigate further.

Saturday, October 28, 2006


We are none of us dog-lovers over here. Renaissance Woman has the excellent excuse of a genuine allergy, but I'm just not a dog person, though I'll give a friend's dog a cordial pat on occasion. It could be that MG has absorbed some of this attitude from us, but her terror goes way beyond our mild antipathy, and seems to be mainly worked up on her own. There was a traumatic incident when a yippy little dog jumped up on her and licked her when she was strapped into her stroller as a toddler, but if she'd been a dog-loving kid in the first place it probably wouldn't have fazed her much.

Seattle reportedly has more dogs than children, so this is not just a hypothetical issue for us. Dogs are everywhere, and often off-leash, though they're not supposed to be. MG's common response to the sight of a friendly dog trotting right towards her is to shriek and try to climb up the nearest parent. The dog's human companion, more often than not, will urge the dog forward at this point, protesting to us, "She doesn't have to be scared! My dog's really friendly! S/he LOVES children!" Which never fails to terrify MG further, and just pisses RW and me off. (In my more charitable moments I try to remember that these people are just trying to be helpful, but really, it's not the best way to help a kid get over her phobia.)

I used to make a big show of petting various dogs myself, cooing over how cute and un-scary they were, and generally trying to coax MG out of her fear, but that just seemed to add big dollops of edginess and shame to her terror, so I dropped it in favor of murmuring every once in a while that I understood she was scared of dogs, but it might help her to keep in mind that almost all dogs are friendly and safe, especially when they're with their humans. I figured everyone has their thing, and if that's hers, fine. We don't have a dog, MG's allergic anyway, and it wasn't a big priority of ours.

So when the three of us went to do Tashlich by the canal last month and a tiny unleashed dog ran yip-yip-yipping over to us, prompting the usual scream/climb-up-parent/owner-protest-of-friendliness combo, I didn't think much of it. We pulled out our bread, threw our various sins into the water (or, more accurately, into the mouths of many excited ducks), and got back in the car, full of virtuous resolutions for the coming year.

On the way home, apropos of nothing, MG announced, "I want to stop being scared of dogs."

"Oh!" I said, stunned, "Wow, that's great!"

"I think I'll stop being scared of them if I learn to appreciate them more."

"That sounds like a good idea," I agreed.

"I'm going to learn to love dogs. Then they won't scare me."

I said something to the effect that loving dogs was an impressive goal, but that not running away screaming might be a good place to start.

"I think I should start with some easy dogs," she mused. "And then move on to harder dogs. Like [our 5-year-old neighbor] L's little puppy."

We agreed that our friend E.'s big, calm, mellow dog might be a good starter dog. What with busy schedules and rainy days, it wasn't until this afternoon that Mermaid Girl had her first appreciation session, with E., her toddler daughter Little Latke, and their dog Anonymous Dog.

It wasn't much to look at: we met at a park, MG and Little Latke swung on the swings while Anonymous Dog watched, and then we all fed the dog treats. MG couldn't bring herself to hold her own hand under the dog's licky tongue, but she did put her palm under mine while I held it out with the treat in it. And she stood near the dog for quite a while without crying, whining, jumping on me, or running away.

That was plenty, for the first time.

Actually, just coming up with the idea on her own was plenty, I thought.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

I swore I'd never blog my dreams, but this one's a doozy

I was in the library, waiting for lunch recess to be over, when I looked down and realized I was wearing my nightgown. But I couldn't leave, because I was supervising lunch recess!

I snuck out anyway, and went out to the parking lot to find my car and see if there were some clothes in there. But my car was missing from the parking lot! It had been stolen! And the keys I had, they weren't really my keys!

Somehow, I found my car, and I found some things to wear, though they weren't very conventional and they showed my hairy legs. I went back to the library and...there were people having s&x! N4ked, t4ntric s&x all over the school library! I glared at them with a steely glare and pointed at the door and yelled "Out! Out! Out!" I had a class due to arrive any minute. "Out! Out!" They wilted (literally) under the force of my glare and slowly began to shuffle out the door. There were dozens and dozens of them, all in a line, shooting me nasty looks. I spotted an orange peel with some yucky orange stuff stuck to it, ground into the rug. I glared my steely glare and pointed my pointing finger at it. "Out!" I yelled, and it slowly unstuck itself from the rug and drifted out the door.

Then the kids came in. They were rowdy and unruly and rude, making comments about my clothes, and I couldn't get them to behave. Because of the clothes thing, I hadn't even really had time to prepare a lesson. Also, someone seemed to have rearranged the library while I was in the parking lot. But a charismatic young guy waltzed in, and without a by-your-leave, started telling amazing stories. The kids all quieted down and gathered around him and listened. Wow, he was really good! They would follow him anywhere! (except for one kid, who was rude to him and made fun of his name; her, I grabbed by the wrist and dragged out of the room, hissing angrily about how I would send her to the office until she apologized, and thinking all the time that she would probably complain to her parents about how mean I was and how I'd hurt her wrist and I'd get in trouble.)

I caught up with the storytelling young man, who had kept the kids enthralled way beyond their regular class time, so that I'd missed my break and it was now almost time for the next class to come in; I had the impression that he was the son of an elderly administrator (nonexistent in real life) who had mentioned that someone might be showing up to volunteer. "Wow, you were great!" I said, overcoming my slight pang of jealousy that the kids liked him better than me. "I'd love for you to come back sometime. What would you need?"

"Well, money," he said. "In fact, you can pay me now. I'll take a check, or..."

"Uh, no," I said. "You just showed up here. That's not how it works. If you want me to pay you, you need to talk with me ahead of time, we need to make arrangements...I'm not going to pay you for this class."

He became quite bitter. "No," he said, "That's not how it works. That's how it works for you."

"Look," I said, all defensive. "If I pay you now, that money comes out of my pocket. It's taking money out of my kid's mouth!" He laughed dirisively. "Well, okay, she'll eat," I conceded. "Out of her college fund, then."

He snickered again. "I didn't even go to college," he said. I still had the sneaking feeling that he was Nonexistent Administrator's son, but it didn't seem to jibe with his air of righteous poverty.

"We won't be able to pay our Visa bill," I trailed off weakly, then pulled myself together. "I'm just not going to pay you."

He stomped out, muttering angrily about my unfair exploitatative self-serving petty bourgeoisness.

I sank down at my desk, which also appeared to have been moved. Finally, I was alone.

Then I looked up: it was that kid, the rude one who I'd sent out earlier, standing next to my desk. An office person, who wasn't there, said, maybe over the loudspeaker, "She said she'd talk only to you."

She didn't speak, just held out a piece of paper for me. Actually, it was a page of large labels, the kind we put in books that are donated in honor of people's birthdays.

On one of the labels she had written, in pencil, in careful cursive, "I know."

She knew she'd been rude? She knew how I felt? She knew...everything?

I never got to find out; instead, I found out I'd slept through my alarm.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Random Bullets of 49 Up

  • The place was packed. The line went down the block. Granted, the film's only here for a week, and it was a rainy Sunday afternoon, the perfect circumstance for a movie. But also it is evidence that I'm not alone in my 15+-year obsession with the continuing story of these fourteen random Brits.
  • Except for Tony, the jolly ex-jockey, just about everyone apparently hates being part of the series. Several people spoke quite bitterly about it, and yet most of them keep showing up every seven years. They do get paid to participate, according to Wikipedia, but that can't be their motivation as most of them are doing all right financially. I think I'd hate it, too; I'm self-conscious enough as it is without my whole life being viewed and analyzed by millions of people at seven-year intervals. You've gotta feel for them; it's not like they knew what they were in for when it all got started back in 1964.
  • But I love watching it. So much for my snobbish standoffishness about reality TV: one participant (one of my least-favorite, but never mind) pointed out that this time around that the series was really the first example of reality TV. Actually the fact that most of them hate it might be one difference; if they were eager to bare everything about their lives every seven years, I don't think I'd trust their portraits so much.
  • A lot of them are divorced. I don't know what the statistics are in England generally, but I figure either they're as high as they are in the U.S. or maybe the series has contributed to straining the participants' marriages.
  • A few of the participants, the ones who had children early, are grandparents now, which startled me more than anything else: 49 seems pretty young. But they're all so happy with their grandchildren; even more than they were about their kids.
  • One character who I would have bet was gay is now married with kids; go figure. Another, who is divorced, said something briefly about a "partner" of unspecified gender who didn't want to appear in the film. It's not the most noble urge but I keep wishing one of them would come out.
  • I know Michael Apted originally meant the film to be a political statement about class in Britain, but it's turned out more as a series about stages of life. At least that's how it seems to me: seeing all these very different people who are the same age gives a kind of composite portrait of life at, say, 35 or 49.I saw 28 Up on video in about 1990, and have seen all the films since on a big screen as soon as they come out. Since I'm about ten years younger than the participants (at least by the time I see them onscreen), it feels a little like a glimpse into my future, or a sort of British version of my future. This time, I was struck by how calm and self-reflective just about everyone was. Some people got emotional when talking about losing their jobs or their marriages, but generally they had a kind of perspective and thoughtfulness about their lives that gives me some hope for mine.
  • I was in a really crabby mood when I went out to see the movie, and when it was over I felt great. I got a fish taco at Taco Del Mar (okay, but still not as good as the place in Capitola) and drove home in a blissful haze of other people's lives.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Swarthy and Villainous

I just read RedheadDread's delicious book-review post, and it reminded me of something that's been bugging me.

I've been listening to Anthony Horowitz's kid/YA thriller Stormbreaker on CD on the way to work, and it's pretty good in an escapist kind of way. But I can't get around the fact that the villain is a clever, devious, swarthy Arab. It sets my teeth on edge. I mean, okay, obviously one must have villains in a spy thriller, and, V. I Warshawski aside, they can't always be clean-cut white business moguls, but this is set up in such a retro, blatantly racist way, it's hard for me to just get into the book.

There's lots of racism in kids' books, especially those written more than 20 or 30 years ago, and, true to my civil-libertarian training, I'm generally for making the books available, rather than just letting novels that are 90% enjoyable fall into oblivion because of the misconceptions and attitudes of the times in which they were written. I'm talking about novels like Pippi in the South Seas, Caddie Woodlawn, and the Little House series, where the racism seems to me to be thoughtless rather than deliberately vitriolic. (I have more trouble with the Indian in the Cupboard series, where the fake-Indianness is at the very center of the narrative. But lots of people love it, it's got a great story, and I know of teachers who choose to read it aloud and accompany the books with class discussions about the issues of real Native Americans and stereotypes.)

Even some of my very favorites have chapters that make me cringe. The very first wish-granting episode in Half-Magic features a comically villainous Arab, and in Randy's first Saturday adventure in The Saturdays, the elderly yet groovy Mrs. Oliphant tells her about being stolen by Gypsies as a girl. My guess is that these authors, even in the 40's and 50's, were trying to be careful and senstive and not write stereotypically about African-Americans or Jews or other obvious minorities, and that Arabs and gypsies seemed not quite real to them and therefore safe to cast as villains.

Whole books have been written about racism and children's literature (Should we Burn Babar? by Herbert Kohl is one thought-provoking collection of essays; there's also lots written--including a thoughtful article by Michael Dorris-- about Native American stereotypes in the Little House books alone), and I'm not really trying to add anything groundbreaking here. I tend to be kinda wishy-washy on the topic, honestly: I've read more than one of these books to Mermaid Girl-- with commentary about how the authors didn't know that this isn't how Native Americans/Arabs/people on tropical islands really are, this was just their made-up version--and I do recommend them to kids at my job, without the political caveats, while also exposing them to other perspectives via read-alouds and recommendations.

But Stormbreaker really brought me up short. I'm surprised it hasn't been more controversial, especially since it was written so recently, and I know of very few positive portrayals of Arabs in kid's fiction that could balance it. What gives? Are Arabs the last okay group to trash?

Thursday, October 05, 2006

How It Happens

You know those overscheduled children? You know, those kids who practically have their own BlackBerries to keep track of all their appointments and activities and can never have spontanteous fun because their childhoods have been ripped away from them and replaced with endless carpools? The ones you swore your child would never, ever be?

Well. We have one of those.

It started with Hebrew school. That was my bottom line. When we dunked the Mermaid Infant in the Mikvah and made her a Person of the Book, I promised the rabbis who signed her conversion certificate that she'd have a Jewish education. So by golly, a Jewish education she shall have. Plus, it will give her something to reject later should she so desire. So, that's one activity right there. (Actually, it's only two Saturday mornings per month right now, but that gets ramped up in a few years.)

Then she turns out to be a crazy-flexible little monkey who needs must be constantly moving in some way, and rather than continually pull her down off the curtains we resorted to something slightly more formal. After dabbling in ballet, creative dance, and gymnastics, she seems to have settled happily into...circus class. Once a week, on the other side of town. The schleppage is considerable, but it won't promote anorexia and maybe it will pay off when she's older and can get us comps to the Cirque du Soleil so we can watch her somersault through hoops of fire and have coronaries (us, not her) for free. But in the meantime, there's another chunk of time gone.

We do occasionally take time to smell those proverbial flowers, though. One night last week MG got ready for bed lightning-quick so the two of us went for a pajama walk around the corner and down the block. It was dark by the time we headed back towards our house, along the block where the cherry trees are. As we approached the corner to our house, we heard jazzy piano music coming from one house, and stopped outside to listen, musing to each other: was it a CD? No, it sounded like live music. It just had that live sound, and it wasn't quite perfect. Sometimes there was a woman singing along--maybe the pianist, maybe someone else--and sometimes there was just the piano.

It was dark outside, and the music coming from the lighted house felt magical to me. I was sure it was a friendly place. I couldn't bring myself to urge MG home. Instead, I coaxed her up some of the stairs towards the high porch, so we could hear better. I had this crazy sense that we could walk up to the porch and poke our heads in, and our musical neighbor would be charmed and happy to see us and would invite us in to sing.

MG is more cautious than I am: she went partway up the steps, but wouldn't budge any further: we were trespassing! This was a stranger's house! So we stood on the concrete steps, listening for a while. Finally, we left. As we headed for our house, the piano-player began to bang out "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen," and I sang along and we danced, MG twirling under my arm in the enchanted night.

The Renaissance Woman's bottom line, by the way, is music. One instrument, any instrument. If MG hates it she can switch, but she has to do something. Last year she did choir (half-hour sessions twice a week before school, so no biggie.) When school started this year, about a month ago, RW asked her if she was up for piano lessons. Yes! She was! She'd love piano lessons! She's ALWAYS wanted piano lessons, her whole life! (Who knew?) So, RW started calling and emailing around in search of a teacher who was fun and low-pressure and who also knew her stuff. Formal music training is not so much my thing; I'm the only non-trained musician among my spouse and immediate family, so I left it to her and more or less forgot about it.

A few days ago, she told me she'd found someone. A young woman who actually works with the circus people who run MG's circus school. She's available one afternoon a week when our overscheduled girl is also free, she sounded smart and pleasant on the phone, and she lives right around the corner!

Yup. She's our "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen"-playing neighbor. So, what can we do but sign MG up for one more activity? I guess it was fated to be.