Monthly Archives: May 2014

Old School

“You don’t understand: things aren’t the same as when you were in school.”

This is the response I get whenever I try to suggest anything about school, or studying, or homework. And yeah, I get it: we didn’t have iPads when I was in school. And of course scientific discoveries haven’t just stood still. But I also don’t get it: I’m pretty sure no one has discovered a new Civil War battle, or a new definition for a restrictive clause. And I’m also fairly sure that no one has yet developed a way of studying that doesn’t involve actually looking at the materials. But most of all, I am absolutely positive that the best way to get the best grades is still the old tried and true “less partying/more studying” route. Of course, that last remark was when I really stepped in it, because it was met with an addendum to the usual, “Things are different now” speech, namely, “And unlike you, I actually have friends.”


To be honest, I wasn’t hurt; I defy you to find anyone who is the parent of a teenager who doesn’t have elephant-thick skin. And I wasn’t frustrated: I know that every piece of “rejected” advice I’ve ever given is not, in fact, discarded, but rather has just begun the arduous process of “sinking in”—just like rainwater has to make its way through dirt, and shale, and limestone before it finally reaches the aquifer, words of advice have to drip through teenage scorn, and doubt, and angst before they finally reach the brain.

No, the emotion that I was feeling was simply chagrin: chagrin that not only don’t they understand the person I was thirty years ago, but that they are so thoroughly convinced they somehow actually do. That, of course, and the fact that they are so utterly and bizarrely wrong. Wrong about me, and wrong about the entire world I was living in. It’s as if they think that instead of living from 1984 to now I have somehow managed to live from 1084 to now. It’s as if instead of trying to argue the merits of flashcards I’m trying to argue the merits of the longbow.

To hear them tell it when I went to school movies cost a nickel, I had to share a writing slate with Abraham Lincoln, and my idea of a fun time was sitting in my room with the shades drawn and the lights off listening to my Janis Ian albums. On my Victrola.

What they fail to understand is that people and places and realities actually change very little in thirty years. Sure, things change on the surface. I look no more like I did in high school than an iPod looks like a Sony Walkman. (Man, I wish my changes had gone in that direction, too.) But just like an iPod and a Walkman both have essentially the same function, 1984 me and 2014 me are still essentially the same as well.

And, as scary as it might be for them to contemplate it, 2014 and 2044 them are still going to be essentially the same. Maybe that’s the real problem: maybe acknowledging that people and problems don’t ever change all that much is just too real. Too scary. Too depressing. Because who wouldn’t like to think that there might be a brand new you—smarter, kinder, way better-adjusted—just around the corner?

Or maybe I’m over-thinking it. Maybe the “things change” speech is really just about getting me to back off with my nagging, a ball thrown in the opposite direction in the hopes that I’ll chase that and not the whole issue of grades. After all, that’s what I would have done, back in my day.

That is, I would have: if we had invented balls yet.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Articles Archive


I used to joke that my daughter, Clementine, was not a natural child—or at least was not my natural child. The fact that she was able to do things like walk away from a dessert table without any dessert was my first clue, but really it was when she got older and not only asked for a hairbrush, but also used one on a daily basis that made me start to question her DNA. I don’t know, it’s just that at times like those I always thought back to the moment she was born and remembered how I had my eyes squeezed pretty tightly shut the whole time. Those midwives could have handed me any old baby and I wouldn’t have known the difference.

But then she does something that is so me that I have to rethink those opinions, because there is no way two people could share such similar attitudes and not be related. Case in point: our opinions on “team building.” We both hate it.

I remember five years ago when it first came up: she came home with a permission form to participate in a “Ropes” course, one of those activities where people gain confidence in themselves and faith in their fellows by doing things like climbing to the top of a telephone pole or walking along a tightrope while being supported by the ropes of their teammates (and staff). Or rather, people without a working knowledge of the litigiousness of American society gain confidence in themselves and faith in their fellows, because the rest of us know that the chances of falling (and not being caught) are pretty close to zero. You want to build confidence and trust? Try letting your teammates pilot an overcrowded Bangladeshi ferry while you’re on the lower deck, or maybe let them pick out your dinner for you at a Somali street market. Those are exercises in confidence and trust.

For me the first realization of how much I really despised team building came in college, when I took a class on the anthropology of dance. What started out as a classroom full of people who, at their best were friendly toward one another, and, at their worst, indifferent, ended up being a classroom full of people who actively despised one another—all thanks to the fact that the professor insisted on the entire class starting and finishing each session with a mandatory group hug. (To this day I am not entirely unconvinced that the whole thing wasn’t some kind of bizarre B.F. Skinner-like social experiment, and that the whole point of the class in the first place wasn’t actually to chart our evolution from strangers to enemies.)

The point is that you cannot force a team to build, any more than you can force a friendship to form. And while I appreciate the effort that goes into these kind of things, a better approach, I think, would be to just offer some kind of incentive program to encourage people to get along in the first place. If my anthro/dance class had offered extra credit for being extra friendly, I would have been all over that.


Or maybe I would have decided that I’d rather study extra hard for the tests so that I could “spend” all those extra points on extra snarkiness. In retrospect, it does sound like the more appealing option. At least to me. Clementine, I know, is one of those people who would happily be nice for free. In fact, that’s one of the things we disagree about most frequently: the importance (or not) of being “nice.” (I’ll let you guess which side she’s on.)

And just like that I’m back at square one again: exactly whose baby did those midwives give me, anyway?

Leave a Comment

Filed under Articles Archive


I read a story recently about a girl in a small Idaho town who got in trouble for handing out copies of Sherman Alexie’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Well, technically, it was a story about a girl who was supposed to get in trouble, but didn’t, because when the police showed up they pointed out that there aren’t any laws against handing out books, especially on World Book Day, which is when (and why) she was handing out the books in the first place.

The people who called the cops probably thought they had some pull in regards to this book because they were also the same people who had managed to get it banned from the the local school. Apparently they called the cops in the misguided belief that the law is as susceptible to bullying as school boards. Or maybe they just weren’t very smart. Either way, the cops did their job (which was probably pretty easy, seeing as their “job” in this case was to do nothing), the girl handed out the rest of the books, and everyone was happy. Except, of course, for the people who called for the book ban and then called the cops, but, to be honest, they sound like the type of people who are at their most happy when they have something to be unhappy about, so in the end they were probably happy as well.

Which is certainly something the protagonist of Part-Time Indian, Arnold Spirit, could appreciate, seeing as how his sense of humor and love for the ironic are two of the things that likely led to the book getting banned in a small Idaho town in the first place. That, of course, and the fact that at one point in the book he mentions masturbation.

And not in the approved way, either: not in the “I masturbated, and now I must eternally suffer the tormenting flames of hell, oh woe is me, what have I done,” way, but rather in the “Yeah, I masturbate, what about it?”way. The way that (obviously) certain people in a small Idaho town don’t like.

It’s funny, really, because you would think that if you were the type of person who is uncomfortable talking to your kids about masturbation, or even sex in general, then you, of all people, would be the most appreciative of a book that did all of the heavy lifting for you. Because the hardest part of having that conversation is definitely getting it started. There aren’t a lot of comfortable ways to segue into that discussion with anyone, let alone your kids. And then this handy book comes along and does it for you.

But apparently not so much for everyone. Apparently they’re afraid that the book itself will set their kids down the “wrong” path. Funny thing about that, though: if simply reading about something was enough to give you an itch to try those things then I can think of a few other choice books I would keep away from my children first. Books where things like all the first born sons are murdered in a night and when men want to make their surprise guests feel really welcome they let them sleep with their daughters. But maybe that’s just me.

And maybe it’s also just me that thinks that a well-written, critically claimed young adult novel would only contain themes and situations that are already familiar to its readers. Themes and situations they had probably already been eager to discuss.

But what do I know? I don’t even know how to go about trying to get a book banned in the first place. Of course, now that I’ve read about it once, for some reason I am desperate to try and do just that.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Articles Archive

March For Sitting

Recently, in a fit of pique I posted a Facebook lament that had to do with toilet seats, urine, and boys who either have no courtesy or no sense of depth perception. The response was immediate—and also entirely female. My friend Jane even came up with various urine related facts, such as how there’s a university in Germany that discounts housing fees for men if they sign a pledge promising to always sit down when they pee, because the money they save on not having to replace/repaint the floors, walls and cabinetry more than makes up for the loss in rent money. She also suggested that we all start a campaign to encourage sitting, something along the lines of “March for Sitting” or “Dry Legs United.” I think that’s a brilliant idea, and am just a little bit sad that the yellow ribbon is already taken.

I am also a little bit sad that it has come to this—that we need to consider a freakin’ campaign to encourage half the population to clean up their own bodily fluids. And I can’t help but think that if the situation were reversed—if it were women who, through a quirk of biology, were liable to leave such a trail, than attitudes about it would be different. In fact, if that were the case then I’m pretty sure there would be laws against that sort of thing. But maybe that’s just my bitterness talking—or my wet legs.

I once read a short story about an alien culture where it was considered shockingly intimate to be in the same room when somebody else was eating. They felt about ingesting food the same way we feel about voiding it. Except for the fact that they took it one step further—not only would it make them uncomfortable to watch somebody else eat, it was also considered extremely unsavory to use the same utensils as someone else. I’m starting to think that maybe they had a point there.

After all, as was recently pointed out to me, the only thing worse than sitting on a cold toilet seat is sitting on a warm one. Maybe we should just start carrying around our own toilet seats, the way that people who are very strict about keeping kosher might carry around their own silverware. Sure, it would look a little strange at first, but so do all those Japanese people walking around with surgical masks on, and nobody makes fun of them. To their face. Much.

And who knows? Maybe we could even individualize our toilet seat covers, like people do with their cell phone cases. Although I’m not sure how I would feel about putting the face of my favorite fictional character on my toilet seat. I’m not saying I wouldn’t like it; I’m saying I’m afraid I would like it too much.

Of course, the best part about people carrying around their own toilet seats is that we would have evidence—maybe visual, certainly olfactory—of all of their “hits and misses.” I would hope that being chastised—or even shunned—by the general population would have a greater impact than just one mother shrieking in disgust from the bathroom. Just imagine how hard it would be to talk to your high school crush if you had to hold your toilet seat in your hand the whole time. Or how hard it would be to interview for that coveted grad school internship while still holding the evidence of your youthful deficiencies.

I know that I’m probably enjoying the thought of one half of the population’s impending humiliation way too much, but in my defense: wet legs. Warm wet legs. It’s enough to make anyone want to make a stand against such injustices. Or rather, take a seat.

Whatever. You know what I mean.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Articles Archive

I Know, I Know

Have you ever read a letter in an advice column that was so eerily familiar you suspected yourself of sleep-writing it? That happened to me recently while I was browsing through the latest issue of Hip Mama: I came across a letter asking how the writer should deal with her awesome, intelligent, well-read teenage daughter who seemed to be suffering under the impression that her generation was the first one to discover injustice. And also suffering under the impression that it was her duty to “spread the word” to her poor, benighted family, starting first, as always, with her mom. The author wrote in particular about having her daughter explain the concept of second-wave feminism and white privilege to her—repeatedly, and, for the most part, condescendingly. It was, to use her words, incredibly annoying.

Don’t get me wrong: I have never claimed to be the last word in understanding and tolerance, and I’ll be the first to admit (well, at least in the top ten) that I could use some re-education in some areas. For all that I was a card-carrying (or rather button-wearing) member of the gay/straight alliance as far back as my own high school days, I was still woefully ignorant about anything involving the trans community until my daughter, Clementine, took it upon herself to enlighten me.

And while I do believe that there is such a thing as “white privilege,” I sometimes have to be reminded of that—especially when I’m having one of those days where “privileged” would probably be the very last word I would use to describe myself and my situation.

So yeah, sometimes Clementine has a point. Sometimes I have strayed so far from my radical, hell-raising adolescence that I have forgotten how to feel completely and utterly outraged. But on the other hand, sometimes I really feel like I’m not getting enough credit for time served. And sometimes I want to remind her that you have to take a break from the outrage every now and then to sit back and enjoy the world you are so desperately trying to save.

But I also know that there is nothing more annoying than to be young and idealistic and have some old burn-out tell you, “Yeah, I was just like you once, before I grew up,” and so for the most part I bite my tongue and accept the lecture. I shake my head and cluck sympathetically when she bemoans the lack of people of color and/or size in most magazines, and even nod in agreement when she rails against my favorite TV shows and movies for not passing the Bechdel Test (are there two or more women in it who have names, do they talk to each other, and do they talk to each other about something other than a man).

But I’m also old enough that sometimes I just want to read a magazine, or sometimes I just want to watch a movie, and I want to be able to do both of those things without being lectured—especially by someone who still has to be reminded, after an entire lifetime spent in Flagstaff, to put her empty yogurt cup in the recycle bin. I know, I know, everyone has their pet causes, and it’s probably a hell of a lot more romantic to “man the barricades” over equal rights than recite from memory the difference between number one and number seven plastic, but still: I can’t help that wondering if in twenty years I will be getting a lecture on my recycling habits, and twenty years after that if I will be getting another lecture on the importance of retirement savings.

I shudder to think what magazine that particular advice column rant will appear in. Hip Great-Grandma, perhaps?

Leave a Comment

Filed under Articles Archive