Saturday, January 31, 2009
Thursday, January 29, 2009
Walking up and down the rows of silent test-takers, I pondered the essay and realized that it was not a particularly easy task. What in the world would I even write about if I were in the kids' Uggs*? After a few minutes of thought, I lit upon a couple of candidates: To Kill A Mockingbird and Northanger Abbey (or, for that manner, any of the Radcliffean Gothic novels that predate it, but those aren't usually read in high school). I know you can do this too, so sing it with me: Scout, Jem, and Dill are afraid of Boo Radley because they didn't know anything about him/The white townspeople are afraid of Tom Robinson because they don't look beyond his race/Catherine is afraid of General Tilney because she doesn't understand the truth of his motives and the family's past/Catherine, upon her enlightenment, is no longer afraid and feels "heartily ashamed of her ignorance." The problem is that there isn't much more to say. These texts' interaction with the ignorance/fear theme is so very straightforward that it would be quite a challenge to write more than a couple of paragraphs about that idea alone.
Starting to feel uneasy - as an Ivy League English major, I should probably not encounter difficulties with a task on a high school proficiency exam - I considered some other high school classics, only to find the picture getting cloudier. In Pride and Prejudice, the two most ignorant characters, Lydia and Mrs. Bennet, are the also least fearful; on the other hand, when Elizabeth is fearful of Mr. Collins introducing himself to Mr. Darcy, it is not because she's ignorant of what will happen, but rather because she knows the precise nature of the embarrassment that will ensue. In "The Waking," Roethke says he "cannot fear" his fate - but if he "learns by going," does that mean he's ignorant at each step, or not? Or how about Hamlet or Macbeth? Is Macbeth more or less ignorant after he has heard from the witches? Is Hamlet more or less frightened after learning the truth about his father's death? At what point would you say that Macbeth is fully enlightened - is it when he dies - is he unafraid then? Or how about Romeo and Juliet or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or A Tale of Two Cities? Fear and/or ignorance in and of themselves don't figure as major headlining themes there - you would have to pick them out painstakingly from the ideas surrounding them and then artificially inflate their importance.**
At around this point in my thought process, I was getting upset. The more I thought about it, the more glib the quote in question seemed, the more inappropriate for the task at hand. It's not Relfvaldo's fault; he made the statement about fear and ignorance in a lovely talk (Wordsworthian, yeah? Ha! I haven't lost it yet, suckas) about intellectual growth. He could not possibly have meant for that one sentence to be pulled out of context. On its own, it's a meaningless little truism that offers no clarification or deeper interest to any given situation. Because what is fear? What is ignorance? Does "ignorance" mean that deep, fundamental way in which humans are always ignorant, or is it the smaller, more specific lack of knowledge of this and that and the other? And is "fear" a generalized existential terror in the face of the abyss, or is it the negative feelings that we have about specific potential events? And don't we sometimes fear because we do know? And aren't we sometimes fearless because we don't? And, most importantly, how is anyone, let alone a nervous 17-year-old kid who may or may not have a solid grasp on thoughtful, analytical reading and writing processes in the first place, supposed to sort through all of these issues and write a coherent essay about them in the time allotted?
I have had discussions like this with other teachers before, and more often than not, they will tell me that I am "overthinking" the issues. Indeed, "overthinking" is a charge that I have levelled at me with some regularity, and it is one that I despise, because I've said it before and I'll say it again: I AM NOT OVERTHINKING. I am simply allowing myself to be conscious of the complexities inherent in this and other matters. I could, of course, shut down this consciousness and consider the ideas before me as superficially as possible. In terms of the exam, for example, I could pretend that the quote "Fear always springs from ignorance" has a clear enough meaning to be a useful premise for literary analysis; I could add enough unnecessary fluff to the To Kill a Mockingbird and Northanger Abbey stuff to fill out a full essay; I could also work with any other texts and make the fear/ignorance issues in them seem much more central and straightforward than they actually are. And, indeed, an industrious, clever high school student determined to ace this exam could do the same. But my question is, WHY? What is the purpose of ignoring obvious complexity and instead fluffing out the superficial to make it seem more meaningful? What is the purpose of being glib rather than thoughtful? Why, in short, would we choose (or encourage our students to choose) to underthink?
This is what really drives me mad about the whole concept of "overthinking." It is true, of course, that some things are not particularly useful subjects for thoroughgoing analysis - like "Did he really mean it when he told me he didn't mind watching the baby while I go to a meeting?" or "How can my doctor be absolutely sure that I don't have hidden sinus cancer?" But, on the whole, things that might reasonably merit our attention (a high school proficiency exam, childbirth, the Academy Awards, Uggs, Oscar Wilde, Brittney Spears, "South Park", pork, etc.) also merit our serious thought. I'm not saying that one must do this sort of thing with everything in the world (though that would, I imagine, be fun). I just think it's important to understand that questioning things thoughtfully and with purpose, holding them up to the light for close examination, winding them up to see if they go - this is not overthinking. It's thinking, and you should be doing it, too.
Returning to the exam room (had you forgotten?) - it was clear to me that the students were struggling with the question as much as I was. Some just stared blankly, unhappily at the exam booklet; some had begun, "Ralph Waldo Emerson once said," and then stalled out; some were writing doggedly, with earnest but desperate looks on their faces. Walking around the room, I could see that very few kids had been able to come up with texts fully appropriate to the prompt; no one had chosen To Kill A Mockingbird, even though it's taught by every English teacher at the school (and at any school anywhere, right?). Indeed, of the kids who were writing, nearly half were writing about the children's novel-turned-movie, Holes. I was infuriated. My school is supposedly a college-prep "academy," but it is still a high-needs school, a place where a large number of the junior and seniors are not unlikely to identify Holes as the last book they read that they understood well enough to actually write about. (And let's not ignore the possibility that many of them did not even read it, but watched the movie instead.) To demand that these students, for whom even basic comprehension is a challenge, play the game of responding to a poorly-constructed task as if it were a well-constructed one - to demand that they be glib rather than honestly thoughtful - to decide that this tells us something about how well they actually read and write and think - this seems nonsensical at best, actively harmful at worst.
"You're overthinking things," you scold, "That's just how standardized tests are. That's how the world works." Perhaps. But does it not occur to you that people make tests and people make the world? Such things, things made by people, do not have to be the way they are - ever. Everything is always subject to change, and anything that doesn't work, anything that's actively harmful, ought to be changed. You know that I'm not overthinking here. I'm just thinking, and you should be doing it, too.
*The uniform policy at the school does not permit boots, but those shearling-lined, slipper-like Ugg boots are all the rage right now, so the girls wear them to school, switch into ballet flats when they get yelled at, and switch back as soon as the yeller is out of sight. The school is awash in Uggs, on-brand and off-brand, pink, tan, grey, black, patchwork, with stitching, with rhinestones. "Kids and their fads," I think to myself superciliously as I don my shearling-lined clog boots, which are of course NOT AT ALL like Uggs. (And which, incidentally, were ALSO featured by Lucky magazine AFTER I BOUGHT THEM. Curses.)
**Smart cookies that you, my readers, are, I have no doubt that you are busy cooking up lots of ways in which I am wrong. You are coming up with lots of texts that are perfect for the task and would make for a meaty essay; you are finding clear fear/ignorance themes in the texts I pushed aside as not having any. Indeed, after three days of pondering, I have done the same. But that's not my point. My point is that this task is simply poorly-constructed. Its poor construction renders it harder than it ought to be, and it thus does not do a particularly good job of testing how well a student actually reads or writes. The same is true of the other task on the exam that day, one that I chose not to discuss here for brevity's sake (ha!). The fact that you, the brainy little readers of a semi-literary-memoir blog, could cope with this exam rather handily proves nothing about how accurately the exam tests the reading and writing skills of every high school student who takes it. So stop constructing artful responses now, OK? Or on second thought, don't stop. Construct artful responses and post them - I don't get enough comments up in this bitch.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
"I don't want you to have to cook," my husband offered.
"OK," I said, wary, " then what shall we have?"
"Oh, you know," said my husband, "stuff that's in the fridge. You know, leftovers."
"What's in the fridge?" My voice was sharpening - I knew he didn't know what we had. "What leftovers do we have?"
He thought a moment. "Black-eyed peas?" I knew there was only a teacup-full of these. "And noodles?" He meant the packaged Japanese noodles that my mother had brought us a few weeks before, the kind where you boil the noodles and add the seasoning packets. My husband could not have known this, but the week before, tired and alone with the baby, I had devoured package after package of these noodles, my lips burning from the salt and the chili oil, my conscience burning from feeding my baby such gross instant "food." The very thought of eating them again made me feel sick. "You know," my husband continued, oblivious, "just this and that. I'll have some black-eyed peas and noodles and maybe a sandwich or something. I don't want you to have to cook, hon. Sorry I haven't cooked recently. I'll cook again next week."
I felt my brain squeeze savagely and my breath get shallow and my ears start to tingle: NOT THIS AGAIN. "Don't you see?!" I wanted to scream at my husband. "You say you don't want me to cook, but you won't cook yourself, and there's nothing to eat in the house, and I'm hungrystarvedhungry and a nursing mom who needs to eat but ifIwantsomethingdecenttoeat I HAVE TO COOK IT MYSELF. And you're talking like cooking is something special you do once a week or so while I spend time writing out our dinner menus in my little notebook and scouring the farmer's market for things you and the baby like and working on making sure we're eating balanced meals so we all stay healthy and now I'm hungry OUUUWWWWWW! OOOOOUUUUUUUUUUWWWWWWWW!!!!" That last is me howling in misery, or rather wanting to howl in misery - because remember, I did not actually say any of these things. Instead, I just stood very still in the kitchen, trying to take deep breaths.
Glowering, my insides burning, I made myself dinner. I made spaghetti with mushrooms cooked in butter and sage with lots of salt and pepper and parmesan. "I'm not giving you any," I told my husband, who, realizing the gravity of the situation, had already apologized. "OK," he said, conciliatory, "Fine. That's OK." I felt better as I ate, though, full and forgiving, and I ended up offering him some. He refused, possibly scared that I had poisoned his portion? "Naw," he said, "I'll just eat some cereal." So my husband ate a big bowl of cereal with sugar for dinner. While he ate, he sat on the couch and played with the baby, so that I could have time to sit at the computer and write this complaint about him.
Friday, January 16, 2009
My baby is one year old now, and he has hair and teeth, and he almost walks and almost talks. I know that our baby days - the long, vague days I spent falling in love with him and myself, his new mother - are over and will never come again. I know that the coming days and months and years of my life with this baby hold all manner of new joy, but it is impossible for me not to mourn the joy that is now irrevocably in the past. Being a parent, as I have noted before, means always having to say goodbye to what one loves most. I can't help but feel, though, that this particular transition - from baby to (small) person - is especially difficult, because it is so marked and so permanent. It feels, then, like the ultimate charity that nature is granting me one last glimpse back at the baby days before I must, inevitably, move forward. I know that this little regression will not last long; like everything else, it must be discarded in favor of what is to come. I will have a shakily-walking, sort-of-talking baby very soon, and I will love him with all of my being until he, too, must leave me and be replaced by a different version of himself, and so on, for the rest of our lives.
Monday, January 12, 2009
Sunday, January 11, 2009
I get the camera and try to take a picture of him struggling with the tape case. Before I can get a good shot, he drops the tape case and comes after the camera, covering the lens with his grasping hand. He takes the camera from me, stops to take off his diaper, then stands up, leaning against an armchair, to examine his prize. Thinking that the removed diaper was a pee-sign, I bring the potty to him and hold him over it. He squirms out of my grasp, irritated, and leans against the chair with the camera again, but he's unsteady, and he falls over. Surprised, though not, I suspect, especially hurt, he begins to cry.
I pick him up and comfort him. I bring out his new alphabet-block-wagon in its box. Immediately distracted from his tears, he helps me pull it out of the box, then takes it to the corner of the room. He sits in the corner, his back to me, taking blocks out of the wagon and throwing them over his shoulder. For some reason - has he hit himself with a block? - he begins whimpering as he does this, and in a few minutes, he is back to crying again, crying and throwing alphabet blocks over his shoulder.
I pick him up again and comfort him again and set him down again, and he is off to push buttons on the stereo. He turns the radio on, then off, on, off, on, off. This has been only a few minutes. This does not include the part of the day when he put his fingers inside the dog's ear; this does not include the part of the day (the many parts - this is a favorite activity) when he climbed onto the back of the couch to push the intercom button, thus broadcasting his yammering to the sidewalk; this does not include the part of the day when he hit himself in the head by pulling out a kitchen cabinet drawer; this does not include the part of the day when he dropped his bowl of yogurt on the dog; this does not include the part of the day when he flushed the toilet so many times in a row that it went on strike and wouldn't flush again for a good half an hour. This has been only a few minutes of toddlerhood; according to what I've read, we have two more years to go.
Thursday, January 8, 2009
"He's just not himself," she said. "He doesn't want to play. He's not talking. He just leans his head on my shoulder and closes his eyes."
I left work early to pick him up, and I found him red, hot, and limp, like a strip of roasted pepper straight out of the oven. He leaned against me, staring listlessly and silently, his forehead burning against my chest. I brought him home, gave him some baby acetaminophen, and nursed him down for a nap. When he awoke, he was cooler to the touch and ready to play a little, but as the evening wore on, his temperature slowly climbed again and he began to droop. Overnight, lying between us on the bed, he radiated sick heat and squirmed himself awake every couple of hours to be cuddled and nursed back to sleep. The next morning, we went to the doctor's office - we happened to already have an appointment for his one-year checkup - where we were instructed to replace the acetaminophen with ibuprofen and call on Monday morning if the fever wasn't gone.
Before the fever, I had been feeling somewhat harried and distracted. Our holiday season this year was wonderfully full but also impossibly hectic - we flew to see my husband's family, my parents stayed with us in the city for awhile, I had old friends in from out of town, and I attended a birth. So early January found me feeling like a cartoon character who has just fallen out of a tree: dazed, dizzy, and crosseyed, with little birdies tweeting in circles around my head. I've been distracted and irritated at work, but also not especially looking forward to my time at home. With the baby, I have felt annoyed at being prevented from writing or housework or miscellaneous catch-up; alone, I have felt too wired and/or wilted to even think about attempting any of these things.*
Over the past several weeks, I've been taking the baby to the babysitter's on Thursdays, when I don't work, so that I can have a day to myself to get things done. (Note to new/prospective parents: after your baby is born, you will begin to feel smug about how very much you can get done when you are home with the baby. I absolutely guarantee you that this house of straw will fall down on your head around eight or nine months, when you can suddenly get nothing done when you are home with the baby. It's still amazing and wonderful and fun, but what with the fewer naps and the mobility, YOU WILL GET NOTHING DONE. I'm not trying to stress you out or anything, but there we have it. ) These Thursdays, while mostly a brilliant thing, are also a source of anxiety for me. The anxiety happens for several reasons:
- When I send the baby to the babysitter on a day that I'm not working, I'm spending money but not earning any.
- This extra-cost factor makes me feel like I have to use the time really really well and be really really productive, which, to no one's surprise, I often fail to do.
- I feel guilty sending the baby away on a day that I am not actually going to work. I have discussed this with my mom friend HA, and we cannot help but come back to the same feeling: it's one thing to be away from your baby and spend money on childcare when you are doing something that you MUST do, like work; it's another thing altogether when you are doing something that you WANT to do, something that might not result in the validation of an immediate paycheck. The trick, of course, is to take your own work and your own self seriously, seriously enough that the people around you take it seriously too. This is really hard to do, though, so you simply slink around feeling guilty about doing what you want to do, and feeling angry that no one is offering you any validation, even though the reason that no one is offering validation is that you are not demonstrating any conviction yourself. Ugh.
- It's a choice, not a routine. Every week, the babysitter asks, "Will he be coming on Thursday, too?" And every week, I must either say "Yes" and feel guilty or "No" and secretly wish the answer were yes. The solution here would be to make it routine - just decide that the baby will go to the babysitter every Thursday. But this is a hard decision to make, as it requires, as noted above, that I pull together the conviction that it's OK to send the baby away, even when the immediate exigencies of a 9-to-5 don't demand it, OK to spend money on "extra" babysitting, OK to treat my writing and my fledgling doula-associated work and the household as though they deserve the same time and consideration as a 9-to-5. Just like no one is going to come around with a magic wand and say, "You are talented!", no one is going to just show up one day and say, "You know, we all take your work so seriously. Why don't you devote an extra day every single week to it? Don't feel guilty about sending your baby away or spending extra money. It's worth it! And after all, your writing and doula work will be bringing in plenty of money soon enough!" That sort of pre-emptive validation is just not going to happen. I just have to do what I want and act like it's normal, but that's really hard, OK? It doesn't seem hard to you? Well, then, you try it, OK? You just FUCKING TRY IT AND YOU'LL SEE. (Sorry about that. Just slipped out.)
In any case, this post-holiday week has seen me feeling particularly ambivalent about whether I should send the baby to the babysitter on Thursday. My thinking was wobbling along as follows: On the one hand, after all the holiday brouhaha, it would be nice to get a good, solid chunk of writing time. On the other hand, I might just waste the day and feel really guilty. Also, the baby didn't spend much time at the babysitter's over the holiday, so maybe it would be mean to dunk him back in right away with a four-day stint. Also, we have a doctor's appointment Thursday morning, so I would have to drop him off after the appointment, which would only give me half the day anyway. But then again, DEAR GOD I WANT TO LIE DOWN AND READ A BOOK. But then again, my husband has to work all week and he doesn't complain about not getting one full day just to lie down and read a book, so why should I? But then again, he's not the one who nurses the baby overnight. Or who's using up immense stores of energy to make all that milk in the first place. But, hold on, remember, I won't just be lying down and reading a book all day - even if I wanted to, my anxiety combined with my short attention span would most likely not let me, and I'd probably get a sizable chunk of something done, even if it were just housework and not writing or working on my DONA certification or whatever. But fuck it, what if I were just lying down and reading a book? Don't I deserve it? JEEZ. (Remember, dear reader, that all of the above mental gymnastics were performed just to decide if I should send the baby to the babysitter for an extra half day this week. You see how crazy I am? DO YOU SEE?)
All of this agonizing, though, was for naught. My poor sick baby in my arms, I saw right away that it was out of the question to send him to the babysitter on Thursday - he needed to stay home with me and get better. It was an amazing relief to have the decision made for me, and an amazing relief to be pulled up out of all of my circular, anxious pro-ing and con-ing with the reminder that I am a mom, and my baby needs me, and that is really what all of this is about.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not glad that my baby is sick, and I'm not implying that his sickness was somehow a punishment for me not wanting to spend time with him, and I'm not implying that I've been taught my lesson and will no longer use Thursdays for my own work. None of these things are true. I'm sad that the baby is sick, and I don't believe the universe arranges itself to punish us or teach us lessons, and I will continue to use Thursdays for my own work - in fact, writing this posting has - almost - convinced me to make it a weekly routine. I just mean that it feels good to be reminded that I want to spend time with my baby, and that being a mom is the foundation of my life, not a distraction from it.
*I'm talking, I know, like this has been going on for a century. But if you think carefully about what I'm saying here, you'll realize that I'm only talking about this week - the past four or five days. This is what it's like when you have a baby. Every little phase, either on your part or on the baby's, every little bump in the road, seems like it has lasted and is going to last FOREVER. For example, when the baby was a couple of months old, he went through a phase in which he was awake between midnight and 3AM EVERY NIGHT. I thought I was going to die of sleep-deprivation and anger-at-my-husband-for-not-also-being-awake, and I was frantically consulting every baby book I had and scouring the internet trying to figure out WHAT COULD BE WRONG WITH MY BABY. Looking back, I realize that this phase lasted less than a week, after which things went back to normal, inasmuch as "normal" even exists in a house with a newborn in it. At the time, though, it felt like eons, and it felt like my baby would never be normal, ever, ever again. I think, after all is said and done, that the hardest part of being a new parent is continuing to maintain proper perspective, continuing to be able to separate the serious from the insignificant, the short from the long, the extraordinary from the normal.