Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Keep going

This morning, by 8 a.m., I had uttered the phrase "Keep going" no less than twenty times. Close runners-up included "Please, please keep going," "Just finish your freaking vocab; no one cares if your Os look funny," "Why are you still wearing your pajamas?!" and "No; I'm NOT going to make a less-angry voice. I'm angry!"

Keep going. I've mentioned that in addition to intelligence, stubbornness and an unhealthy fondness for cheese; attention deficit disorder runs in our family; or at very least, in my son and me. Perhaps the most insidious manifestation of it is the impulse that cloaks itself in perfectionism.

The thing about our brains is that they're unpredictable. Quite aside from the Herculean effort it takes to finish even the simplest of tasks, I find myself afraid of how I'll do them, of the outcome. Our brains make messes. One minute, my mind is flying a mile a second, surveying terrain no one else sees and making connections no one else has considered. The next, my mind is on standby and won't boot back up no matter how much I wiggle the mouse. One minute, my mind's enthusiasm and refusal to conform is solving a friend's dilemma with ease. The next minute, the enthusiasm gets a bit too impulsive and I choose the most uniquely detrimental thing to say at the moment, and say that. One minute I'm winning an essay contest; the next my editor's furious that the article (due Monday) may or may not be in by 5 (on Wednesday). One minute I've made the perfect dessert and blitzed the house in a rampage of maniacal panic-cleaning; the next, I'm an absolute parenting failure, and my house looks like I'm auditioning for Hoarders.

Yes, yes; I know. We all go through these things. I am sure you all do. But if I remember my freshman psychology DSM-IV-skimming properly, the difference is that someone with a particular disorder does/has these things to the extent that they consistently screw with that person's personal and/or professional life. My husband, for example, blurted out that the cat "was being an asshole" to our son, but I am skeptical of his claims of temporary Tourette's.

Let me tell you, it screws with our lives.

We are afraid of the mess our brains will make, so we don't do anything. As it happens, this dovetails quite nicely with our other ADD impulses, which all result in lots of talk, rampant obsessing, and not much doing.

We say we're holding out for perfect, but perfect doesn't exist, so we're really just being cowards.

Keep going. I hadn't remembered it for a few months, but I was telling my son this morning: My mentor and one of my thesis readers for my MFA, Thomas French, must have said it to me at least as often as I say it to my son. We'd begin nearly every conversation thus:

Him: "What am I going to say?"
Me: "I know. I know. 'Keep going.'"
Him: "Well?"
Me: "It'll be done tomorrow. Promise."

(Sometimes, it even was.)

It was pathetic, really. A grown-ass adult being told, basically, to turn in her homework. I was afraid. I was afraid of turning it in. What kind of mess did I make? What if the allegory I used this time fell as flat as that other one I thought was so awesome? How could I turn in something so second-rate, so rough, so imperfect? Anything's better than this pile of shit. Nothing. Even nothing is better.

Tom French is on The Colbert Report tonight. Everyone, if you haven't already, ignore me and go watch it right now. I'm positive he has cooler, more insightful things to say than I, and that's not self deprecation. It's a fact. He's very cool. He goes to very cool places and writes, very well, about very cool things. Also, he likes the same music, comedy, and books as me; so clearly, he's a genius. Still, the single biggest thing I'll carry with me is the mantra to keep going.

We practiced something in the program that we liked to call the "shitty first draft." I don't think Tom invented it or even said it much, but it's the same concept. Turn in your shitty first draft. Don't hold on to it. Don't withhold your ideas because you ramble when you talk about them.

Sometimes, my stuff was crappy. My favorite lines got axed. And you know what? I survived.

Keeping it in robs me of the one thing that can kick-start me out of my ridiculous spirals -- the input of others. Writing, and living, is a dialogue, even when I contribute most or all of it. Especially then. It's change, ideas, people, feedback. It's how most people ignored my essay about black widows and my reference to Queen's "Fat-Bottomed Girls" (except for a constant stream of disturbing traffic that seems to interpret the song title in ways that have little to do with Queen's intended meaning and even less to do with arachnids). It's how a throw-out essay gets a hundred hits in the first few minutes. Writing is failure, sometimes, but that's OK.

I told my son to write his funny Os and his weird vocabulary sentences that always seem to involve me, wizards, and flatulence. I hollered at the top of my voice last night that Your writing is better if you just speed up, if you just KEEP GOING. It was only then that my brain booted up out of standby mode and made the connection. Hello kettle; my name is Kim. You're black.

This essay is a shitty first draft, and I'm posting it anyway.

I want to do things. I want to do a collaborative mother/son children's book, with art by him and words by me. I want to look into displaying my photos. I have an idea about the insect-human relationship that I want to write. I have other ideas. I haven't developed or looked into any of these things, because I'm afraid to put something out there if it turns out to be lame. But I'm saying right now, I'm going to do these specific things, or at least try. So if you can help me with these goals, by all means, feel free. Even more than that, however, nag me. I need to keep going.

Life is a shitty first draft. You're not really living if you're afraid of that fact. Besides, sometimes, it's not so shitty. It's pretty great.

Friday, August 13, 2010

It's all a game: Pass it on

(Essay by me. Pictures, not necessarily related, by him. So this sort of counts as Snapshots.)

Have you ever played that old reading game "Apple Butter?" It's supposed to go like this: You're reading aloud, two or more of you, in class or at home (because all families worth the name read together at home), and when you want to pass the turn on to the next reader, you say "apple butter," as in "I do not like green eggs and apple butter." You get to name the next victim person to read.

My dad introduced me to the game, along with everyone else who was a fifth- or sixth-grader with me. We mostly played it at school. I never had him as my "main" teacher, but we split up for a few specialized subjects. I had him for mythology and health. And detention, sometimes.

I always wondered why the game was dubbed Apple Butter. I didn't know what apple butter was -- I always had this rich, buttery, sugary, appley confection-condiment in mind -- but I imagined it had very little to do with Madeline L'Engle, the American Revolution, Poseidon, or health class. Still, the game rocked. (To be fair, "quiet ball" rocked in sixth grade, so we may have been an easy audience.) It always became a bizarre hybrid of bonding, learning, connecting, and tormenting one another. A game of pass it on.

I've since asked around, and almost no one remembers the game by this name. Maybe you called it "popcorn" or "the game that means, thank god, that I don't have to read for very long." Who knows. Memory is a funny thing.

In his class, it wasn't called anything. Instead of saying "apple butter," we'd call out the next person's name, as in "There was the brain, there was IT, lying pulsing and quivering on the dais, soft and exposed and KIM!"

Or "The digestive system is made up of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, the rectum, and the DAD! I mean ... oops. The rectum, and the Mr. Hosey."

(Much class laughter. The dad-as-teacher thing never quite got old.)

The game was lame, sure, but you should've seen it. Pass it on. It's a great game.

Have you seen a kid who can barely read squirm and fidget and physically ache for his turn to read aloud? I have. (His turn ended with "Athena burst forth from the head of Travis.") Pass it on.

Have you seen sworn enemies (at least, it was sworn before morning recess) make up over the personal grooming unit? I have. ("Make sure to clean your ... Melissa! Heeheehee.") Pass it on.

Have you seen weird kid -- the only kid whose presence still made his classmates want to pantomime "sanitize" a chair before sitting, the one who smelled kind of like waffles and always wore the same dingy Bart Simpson shirt and didn't talk, just chewed his knuckle; the kid you didn't want to offend but, by God, you weren't going to be seen liking -- have you seen that kid get picked by the cool one, and get his moment in the sun? I have. (His gem: "Mucus is secreted by Mr. Hosey." Heaven only knows where the reproductive unit would have taken us.)

We pass a lot of things on around here, and I don't just mean my chinless profile, pale skin and nasally voice. Sarcasm -- from my father's every-ready remarks to my own sardonic take to my son's emerging wit, which would make me strangle him if it didn't make me burst with pride. Reading -- from my father's love of the classics, mythology, L'Engle, and baseball stories and my mom's obsession with Stephen King (no one ever sees that coming, somehow), to my and my son's devouring of anything written.

We pass on compassion -- my mom for the environment and cats, my dad for an entire community that somehow became his family, my son's almost-painful concern for all animals. He cried when a cricket died on his thumbnail tonight.

Sometimes, though, I think we mostly pass on plain old passion -- for learning most of all -- and the deeply rooted conviction that for anything to be worth doing, you should be learning something, and if you're learning anything, it is by definition fun.

I was discussing my son's progress so far this year. He's got 99s and 100s on nearly every assignment, but he's dragging. He's bummed.

If he's not learning something new, he can't really see the point. It should be exciting.

"I wouldn't worry," someone told me, "It happens all the time. If it's not too awful, I wouldn't worry."

What? What kind of a half-assed standard is that? If it's not bad, it's fine? No. Sorry. And why would it happening "all the time" make me happy?

If it's wonderful, great. If it's provocative, fine. If it's difficult and infuriating and frustrating; if we cry and yell every day for a week, great. Well, not great. But maybe necessary, definitely important. The fun always comes after those times. It's certainly better than "not too awful." "Not too awful" is stagnation. It's self-centered I-don't-have-to-learn-ism. It's getting by. It's less than your best, which is never even close to OK. I don't want my son to get by.

My son loves learning. He writes, reads at least a few levels above his grade, sees things in ways no one else does, and has an imagination like you wouldn't believe. He created an entire fantasy universe -- completely original, not a riff on an existing one -- when he was four. He's amazing. I'm going to go out on a limb (we pass that on too) and say he got it from me.

He's also pathologically inattentive, impulsive, and stubborn like you really wouldn't believe. It's like arguing with an eight-year-old male version of myself. Which makes me realize: Damn, I'm an asshole. I'm going to stand on firm, well-trodden ground and say he got that from me.

It's easier to leave well enough alone. Just do your dang work. Get it freaking over with. Get by.

This morning he was gasping, writing, gasping, writing, and gasping. GASP. Writewritescribblewrite. GASP. Writewritescribble. GASP.

"What on Earth are you doing?" I asked.

"I made a game out of it," he told me. "I can do three of them before I have to take another breath. It's fun."

Oh. Right.

"Hey, Mom? Can we read out loud tonight? Can we take turns? And then, can we take the camera you passed on to me ... can we take it out before the sun sets?"

Later, he happened to ask for the "old kind" of sandwich, and I remembered: the first food he "made" himself was a peanut butter and apple butter sandwich, ages ago.

Turns out, apple butter is this cinnamony applesauce-type spread thing. It's really pretty gross. Somehow, I still imagine it as the best treat in the world.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

This totally counts as Wordless. It's me, after all.

First off, thank you times a whole bunch to everyone who sent me blog comments, Flickr comments, Facebook comments and private e-mails after yesterday's parental whining. It helps. At first, I didn't like it -- everyone was all "Yeah; it happens to everyone," and my brain was all "NO! It doesn't happen to everyone! Boo! They don't understand!" A few minutes' of deep breathing and junk-food-eating later, however, let me gain a tiny bit of perspective. Which was all I really needed. So thanks. Much love to you all. You totally do understand.

And now, I'm shutting up. Because it's Wordless Wednesday, and I'm not being very wordless. That part above doesn't count.

OK. Shutting up for real now.


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Really. How DO you do it?

My son hates me.

Well, no. That's overly dramatic. (Surprise!) My son doesn't hate me; in fact, he tells me every day how much he loves me. I still get to tuck him in. We have "No, I love YOU more" contests in the car.

(Here's where you're nauseated, if you're not a parent yourself or in some way invested in me/my son.)

Rather, in between these things -- and by that I mean for huge, tedious chunks of each day -- he acts like he hates me. It really sucks. Homework is a chore. Bedtime is a chore. Not wiping one's nose on one's shirt is a chore. Why we can't rescue every cricket on the planet is a major issue. Chores are really a chore.

I don't mean the usual "Oh, you know how it is; he never wants to do his homework" chore. I mean ridiculous. Epic battles. Beyond the bounds of reason. To the point where I have to completely abandon, at least for a moment, being his friend; where I have to turn all medieval and tell him, at the top of my lungs, where the rubber meets the road/how the cow eats the cabbage/how the third grader better do the freaking homework right freaking now if he wants to live to see fourth grade.

Naturally, I want him to develop his own identity. In a way, maybe it's my fault. I encourage talking about everything. I love explaining. I love being asked for explanations. I love receiving explanations. I'll talk all night long. I really kind of abhor the "because I'm the parent" conversation ender.

David is EXACTLY like me, in way too many ways. Meaning, he wants to talk and talk and talk, and if he hasn't seen the wisdom of a particular course of action, he wants to talk (read: argue) some more. Which would be fine, I really think it would, in an adult. I'm coming to realize, however, that this isn't so fine in an eight-year-old who simply doesn't always possess the faculties to understand the consequences of his actions. We reach an impasse every single night. He cries. I get aggravated. He argues. Digs his heels in. I yell. I feel awful. He says something -- usually some little, totally dumb kid thing -- and my feelings actually get hurt.

I know how to love my kid. I know how to keep him safe. I know how to set down the rules, and usually he follows them. He's brilliant, and funny, and kind. I know how to nurture all those things.

But I think I'm supposed to know how to fight with my kid. And win. And have him, at least sometimes, acquiesce cheerfully. I hate that he doesn't right now. HE hates that he doesn't.

I'm good at this. I'm a natural mom, at least until this thing. I'm not being facetious in the least when I say I totally suck at this part. How do you do it?

Please tell me this is just a phase. Please tell me there are more tranquil phases to come.

I'm supposed to be the one making this go the right way.

Because I'm the parent; that's why.