Sunday, July 29, 2012

Facing Upsetting Truths

"What he'd thought of as a personal strength--he was happy to know about her only what she wanted him to know--was something more like selfishness. A childish willingness to remain in the dark, to avoid distressing conversations, upsetting truths. He had feared her secrets--or, more specifically, the emotional entanglements that might come with knowing them."

-Joe Hill, as character Jude,
Heart Shaped Box

I was struck by this quote when I was reading yesterday afternoon (sidebar: I only read this book in daylight hours, btw, because it's too scary to read after dark!).  I was surprised to find philosophy in the middle of my ghost story, but it's spot-on. It describes a trend that is rankling me:  a general unwillingness among so-called adults to step up and have necessary confrontations.

The jerks of the world allowed to continue on their jerky way, shoving the needs of others and even simple courtesy to the wayside simply because no one will call them on it.  They do it because they can. We stand there watching them go by, our broken pieces of precious things in our hands, just gobsmacked that people will be so rude. But do we do anything? Usually, no.

We give up before we begin. We don't think it will do any good.  Maybe we're afraid of having that anger and self-righteousness directed at us.  Maybe we're trying to have a live-and-let-live attitude and feel it's not our place to question someone else's choices. Maybe we wish we had the balls to be such blatant aggressive assholes ourselves. We're kind people, raised right, with an awareness of our needs in relation to needs of others. We take others into account. Or as the bullies would say: we're wusses.

Bullies depend on that. On innocent bystanders continuing to stand by. On people turning a blind eye because it's "not their business." Remember this?

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me.
-Martin Niemöller 

We've learned nothing. 

It's not just in the big world that this comes into play. It's rampant in the small stuff, too. The day to day.

I watch coworkers afraid to offer any kind of criticism to coworkers, even clearly warranted and arguably necessary criticism that can avert disasters on small and large scales. I see bosses lecturing the whole staff rather than taking a problem up with the person who has the problem. I know parents afraid to enforce limits for their children, unable to face the tantrum.

I think, really? You can't face the wrath of a five year old to help create a better future adult?

When I'm most cynical, I think it's a symptom of how messed up society at large is. I know that I personally have never voted "for" anyone, just "against" the other guy. I am starting to truly believe that a person who can survive to be elected to high office in our country should therefore not be elected, because, obviously they are slippery, sly and not to be trusted. They are players.

Maybe it's really that, when the entire world is an upsetting truth, it's hard to open your heart and engage with any of it. There's just so much. It can swoop in, wash you down and drown you before you can extend the hand you intended to help with. It's dangerous, facing upsetting truths. But it's even more dangerous to pretend they don't exist.

So, let's start small. You don't have to start by taking on Congress.  How about calling your friend on it the next time she slams a gay person in your presence? How about telling a colleague that he is monopolizing the meeting? How about saying "no" and sticking to it even when your kiddo wheedles and whines like a champion?

The truth is often upsetting. It's not easy to face. Facing it might require something of you. But that's why they call us the grown-ups. Nothing will get better if we don't do something about it.
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.
Dr. Seuss, The Lorax
Now, put your big-girl panties on and get out there!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Spoiled Children

Generally, it's not a good thing when things are spoiled. It means the meat has gone rancid, the milk sour, the laughter harsh or brittle. So also with children. Spoiled children are ill-behaved, demanding little buggers.  They shriek and throw tantrums. They leave broken dishware and angry adults in their wake. They grow up badly.

We know this, but the desire to spoil children seems to be pretty universal. It's probably something biological, an automatic indulgence, like the softness women feel when they see infants. There is something really delightful in giving small gifts and treats to a kiddo, in giving them experiences and things. Maybe it's their enthusiasm.  That ice cream scoop (toy, amusement park trip, car . . .) is the best thing ever . . . and, by association, you are the best Mommy (aunt, grandma, uncle, brother, etc.) in the world.

There are plenty of messages against it. Spoiled children in movies turn out badly.  I'm thinking of characters like Marylee Hadley in Written on the Wind, Connie Corleone from The Godfather, Veda Pierce from Mildred Pierce. Fabulous dissolutes. Drunken wastrels with Daddy issues. They drink too much, smoke too much, drive too fast, and screw up fabulously. They act like they don't care, but really they care a great deal. The message seems to be that, because everything was handed to them, because they didn't have to earn a place in the world, they don't really have a place in the world.

In the movies of my teen years, they become an object of scorn, the bully character that you are happy to see the underdog come up and defeat. The Socs vs. The Greasers.  And we're cheering for the Greasers. At least I am. I'm still definitely a Greaser.

With Mitt Romney in the headlines lately, that rich kid bully character comes into my radar again, this time in real life.  As an adult, I run across spoiled, nasty people all the time. Mostly, they seem to drive white SUVs as if they came with entitlement instead of just a title.  They are the moms sitting near me at a coffee shop dissing their nannies, the people cutting me off in traffic only to end up sitting right beside me at the same red light.

I know I have a chip on my shoulder about these people that goes back to playing against tennis club babies in high school and resenting their fancier equipment and years of expensive lessons. A rich person who would like to befriend me will find it a hard row to hoe . . .and they probably have never held a hoe in their lives.

But chip or not, I disapprove of living your life like you are owed something. It's the assumption that stings.  The idea that somehow your needs are more important than those of the guy next to you.

I'm a mom now and it softens my view a little. I know that desire to give my children whatever I didn't have and felt the lack of. And, honestly, I had it pretty good. My parents "spoiled" me plenty. They did also refuse me things, though.  There were limits that had nothing to do with our finances, but about our values. I worry about spoiling my children, about raising them to be superior assholes when I'm just trying to instill healthy self-confidence.

I hope I can balance this for my children, indulging them appropriately, but still holding them to a standard of behavior and attitude about others that means they are good people.  There are limits. I'm not Mildred Pierce, working my fingers to the bone to feed the endless appetite of a spoiled Veda.  I'm not a socialite, leaving the raising of my progeny to the hired help and shrugging when they behave badly.

People can't really be spoiled.  They are not pieces of meat that we discard when they turn.  There is always time to turn around and make a change. Life is a process, and, at some point, we all take over the reins of our own lives.  Our parents influence where we start, but we determine where we finish.  Spoiling a child can give him or her different struggles than depriving a child will do, but in the end, it's the way we overcome our obstacles that shows our mettle.

At least that's what I tell myself, as I purchase yet another toy, another book, another ticket to another event.  Indulging isn't spoiling. It's all about balance.

I hope I'm right. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

My Hands: From a Prompt Writing Workshop

I attended a prompt-writing class on Saturday morning. I have mixed feelings about the process, but I did get a couple of scraps of writing that interested me, so it can't be all bad. Here's one of them. The prompt was to start with "My hands are . . ."

            My hands are sore this morning. It pisses me off. I’m too young for this crap.  My mother didn’t have to deal with the sore swollen joints until she was in her fifties, and here I am at barely forty and find myself saying things like, “it’s worse when it rains” like I’m some kind of arthritic old lady.

            I’m not diagnosed with arthritis so far. It seems to be a more generally inflammation problem, maybe tied to the pain in the lower back and hips and maybe to the TMJ. Maybe it’s a women thing. Since I have an IUD now it’s hard to know where I am cyclically, to see if there’s a correlation.  There are days when it doesn’t hurt at all, and it’s definitely been much better since I went off the statins. I try not to worry about it too much, but just live with it, like so many other small complaints. If it doesn't kill me . . .

            So my hands and I try our best to get along. I’m not sure how I feel about them. I find them too small for many tasks, clumsy, prone to dropping, and not strong enough to get a good hold on things.  I’m not sure how they feel about me either. They complain a lot. Maybe they feel underappreciated or put upon. Maybe they think I ask too much and should consider sharing the wealth with other body parts from time to time. Maybe they are lazy, or just, like the rest of me, slow to wake.

            I’ve always thought my hands were kind of ugly. Maybe they know that and resent me for it. They are small and stubby, freckled and often appear older than seems appropriate—dried and bumpy in the way that my Great Grandmother’s were. But I’m still just a Mom, haven’t earned those other honorifics yet. 

            I’m sure I don’t help. My beauty routine is to nibble down the nails when they get in my way or when edges snag on things and to apply band-aids when I nibble too far.  Hardly a posh salon visit with a wax bath and lotions and paint. They’d probably rather be someone else’s hands.

            But you’ve got to have hands, one more than the other. I remember when I hurt my right arm roller-skating at my daughter’s birthday party and had to rely so heavily on the left. Trying to write on the board for my students or cut a tomato to go with dinner, cleaning up after going to the bathroom. The most mundane tasks became challenging. Luckily that was only for a few weeks.  When I got my right hand back, I was ridiculously happy and grateful. 

            I should remember that and not resent it if my hands complain a little here and there. I do ask them to do so much. And so much of it has been unpleasant. If there’s a disgusting mess to be handled, they are the first in line. And often without the protection of rubber gloves and with the scouring punishment of harsh soaps afterwards. They pick up the dog poop, wipe the soiled behinds of children, pull that disgusting thing out of the drain, handle the caustic chemicals that go with a contemporary sense of “clean house.”

            What would they do, if I let them choose? Would they learn sign language? Would they sit neatly folded on a silken pillow? Would they stretch out, reaching for things that only they want? Would they dance? Would they curl into fists and beat out aggressions against the walls? Would they grab and hold fiercely the things they love most, or pat then gently, rubbing love into the surfaces? Would they make things? Would they lie passive and take on pampering like lotions and massage?

            It may seem silly, talking of hands as separate entities, but the body is a mysterious thing. The ways it communicates and acts are difficult to analyze. When we are lucky, so much happens without conscious decision or thought. We take in air and let it out, all without even a glimmer of awareness.  Something starts to fall over and my hand darts out to catch it, almost before my eyes have seen it. 

            Arguably my hands work for me, but I don’t feel as if I make the decisions all the time. Even now, typing here at my computer, the fingers find the right keys pretty consistently. I think the words, some part of me breaks those down into letters and sends signals to the right fingers, who have learned through training and practice which motion to make, to press the right key to bring those words to the screen where I can read them and make use of them. 

So, that's it. Interesting where the brain wanders when given permission to do so.  I wonder if some of it might work into my new project: a superhero novel about menopausal women called (in Scrivener anyway), "The Change." I bet one of the characters has sore hands in the morning, too. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Night of the Hunter: Flawed Masterpiece

I recently was able to see Night of the Hunter on the big screen. 

I had seen the movie before, maybe more than once.  Going in, I remembered only that I found the movie affecting and visually gorgeous. I was sure it would be amazing on the big screen. I could remember a scene in a bedroom where something in the lighting and angles made it look like a chapel and I could remember Robert Mitchum's quiet menace. 

Overall, it's a flawed piece. The plot is sketchy, full of odd holes and unclear motivations. The little girl looks eight and acts three. The narration is messy and the focus a little askew. There are a few moments that pulled me out of the story when my suspension of disbelief was stretched too thin and snapped. 

But there's still something so compelling in the film. The older brother's loyalty to his father, suspicion of Mitchum's Harry Powell, protectiveness of his little sister, slow movement to trusting Lillian Gish's Ms. Cooper. 

Mitchum's cold madness, his sureness in "the religion the Almighty and me worked out betwixt us," his animal rage when thwarted.  Lillian Gish's portrayal of the grandmotherly patron of lost children, come to a hard-won peace with her own mistakes. 

Even poor, silly Ruby's willingness to give away her affections for a little attention and a movie magazine. As Ms. Cooper says, "Women are such durn fools." And we feel she knows--she's been that fool. She understands. 

It must be about the moments. The overall effect is not perfect, but there are moments of startling clarity and beauty.  Iconic moments.  Moments that only work in black and white. 

Willa Harper's body tied into the sunken car, her hair flowing like seaweed and the light making her translucent and glowing, a water spirit. 

Ms. Cooper's straight backed, long-strided, no nonsense walk with the line of children in tow behind her, like so many ducklings.  Sitting in her rocking chair with her rifle across her knees. Strength in a frail wrapping. 

The silhouette of Harry Powell on the horizon, under the impossibly bright moon, his baritone hymns echoing across the empty, desperate landscape. As lonely as Don Quijote, but implacable and adamant.

All the close ups on the animals who share the night journey downriver. You feel the fears in the night with your child's heart, thumping as fast as any frightened rabbit's. 

And certain lines.  

Harry Powell lifting his head at the ice cream counter and saying, "She'll not be back. I reckon I'm safe in promisin' you that," his hooded eyes failing to disguise the threat in his voice. 

All of Ms. Cooper's pronouncements about the way of the world. "It's a hard world for little things." Only Lillian Gish could pull off speaking them to the camera without sounding pedantic or strained. 

In the end, I think it comes down to Robert Mitchum, the mixture of madness, coldness and menace he brought to the role.  Who else could make "Bringing In the Sheaves" into a battle hymn? And what can  it mean that when Gish joins him in song, it's beautiful? They sing together as he stands outside waiting for his moment to attack and she guards the children, as much the embodiments of love and hate as Powell's finger tattoos. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Married Without Children

My husband and I have never been married without children. When he married me, I was already a mother.  So T, the brave soul, jumped in with both feet--he became a husband and a father all in one fell swoop. Not long after that, we had another child together.  She was practically a honeymoon baby . . . or would've been, if we'd had a honeymoon.  That's how it goes when you marry "late" (I was thirty-five).  Biology waits for no woman!

So, now we've been married six years.  It's weird. I can't believe it's already been six years because it seems like we are still very much newlyweds. At the same time, I think it must've been much longer than six years because of how well established we seem to be.  It probably adds to this effect that our oldest is now twelve and looks fifteen.  People assume we must've been married at least sixteen years.

One of our struggles is getting "us time."  That's hardly news. Everyone with kids has this problem and probably some people without kids have this problem.  But, when I look around at our friends who also have kids and our friends who are still thinking about whether they want to have kids, I realize there's a big difference between us.  We have never had a time when we were married without kids. Maybe that's why it bothers us more than it seems to bother them when we can't get enough time alone together.

The closest we came to "married without children" is when we were dating. We got a few weekends together where we got to sleep when we wanted, eat when and what we wanted, make our days without planning around the needs and wants of children.  Those weren't "real life" weekends though. That was vacation time, days taken off work and other responsibilities to run away and play together.  Mostly not even in my town or his, but some other town we chose to visit. Not real life.

I wonder how this will play out as we age.  It's already only six more years till the big girl goes to college. If they go as quickly as the first six years of our marriage, that'll be tomorrow afternoon. When the littlest runs off to college, I'll be (oh my) fifty-four years old. Fifty-four, and married without children.  I think we'll be a whole new class of empty-nesters: newlyweds. Maybe that would be a good time for that honeymoon.