Elbow Room

Yesterday, I had a kid home from school with strep throat. She’d already been to the doctor, so she was kinda sick, but not as sick as she had been, and what she wanted to do more than anything else was hang out on the sofa in her pajamas and watch The Hunger Games. What I wanted to do more than anything else was get back to my regular routine, because it seems like I’ve been receiving phone calls requesting that I pick sick kids up at school a lot this past month. But as my 12-year-old cued up The Hunger Games, which she had somehow not managed to see until now (deliberation or accident, I’ll never tell), it occurred to me that I was being handed on a silver platter the sort of opportunity that mindful parent-types encourage all the time, to wit, to occasionally sit down and consume popular culture with your teen and afterward to “talk about it.”

I’m pretty much a puritan at heart, so the idea of sitting down to watch a movie at 8 in the morning didn’t sit very well with me, but then again, I’m also a sucker for all that parenting talk about ” teachable moments.” Besides, I was feeling kinda cruddy myself. (I’ve also been hyper-aware lately of how swiftly time passes and how much opportunities to “hang out” with my teenager are dwindling.)

I didn’t watch all of it — aside from the fact that I had things I needed to be doing, seeing attractive teenagers cage-fight other attractive teenagers to the death isn’t exactly my idea of a good time — but I saw enough to realize that The Hunger Games can be dissected in some fairly interesting ways (the rest of you, who saw it two years ago, probably already knew that).

Some of The Hunger Games was filmed in Atlanta (as is much of The Walking Dead—I could really get going about the idea that the city where I live is a stand-in for a post-apocalyptic wasteland). Some of The Hunger Games was filmed in Western North Carolina, the verdant, mountainous area of that state where, as I pointed out before my reading in Hendersonville, NC this time last year, “a good portion of Atlanta wishes they lived.” Western NC is where my daughter goes to camp every summer; it is where, I think, she feels most free, and most herself. I’ve camped and hiked there for years — if Atlanta is a stand-in for Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland, then Western NC is our family’s own personal stand-in for Wilderness, with a Capital W. It’s as close to it as we can get.

Atop Big Glassy Mountain, Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, Hendersonville, NC

Atop Big Glassy Mountain, Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, Hendersonville, NC

The movie bugged me. But it also, probably in part because of where it was filmed, left me with a oddly expansive feeling for the rest of the day. The feeling was somehow similar to the way I feel post-camping or hiking: like I’d been out there for a little bit. Like I’d pushed myself a little bit physically and come out ok. Like the grime I was covered in and the rocky ground I’d slept on had somehow shifted my perspective and that was not at all a bad thing.

This, I thought, was very strange.

The previous day, I had received this in my email inbox:

APS tips for Walking to School and Bus Stops

Atlanta Public Schools is aware of recently reported abduction attempts near multiple school properties. While they have not taken place on school property, APS continues to work with the Atlanta Police Department to ensure the safety and security of all of our students as they walk to and from schools and bus stops. These incidents provide opportunities for our parents to talk to their children about personal safety, in general, and the importance of looking out for the safety of others.

The following tips for walkers and bus riders can serve as a conversation starter and reminder for all parents and students in the district.

• If you see something suspicious while walking to school or the bus stop, call 911. • Report abduction attempts to the police and school administrators immediately and include as many details as possible. • Develop a buddy system for walking to school and bus stops. Students should never walk alone. • Always walk in groups with at least two or three other students. • When possible, parents should walk their children to school. • Plan the most direct route to school with the fewest street crossings. • Do not speak to strangers for any reason, even if they are asking for directions or information. • Never accept rides from strangers, even if they offer items such as money or gifts. • Stick to the route you picked with your parents. Don’t let friends talk you into shortcuts, and never walk through alleys or across vacant lots. • While walking, do not talk on the phone or wear headphones. Be aware of your surroundings at all times. • Never enter or play near abandoned houses. http://www.atlantapublicschools.

This information was sent to every parent with a child from the ages of 4 to 18 in the Atlanta Public Schools. And while no one would disagree with its main thrust — that parents need to talk about their children about safety — some of its generalizations (are they really espousing that high school students really never walk alone? or that parents walk 15 year olds to school?) gave me pause, particularly in light of watching The Hunger Games less than 24 hours later.

Why is The Hunger Games (or Divergent, or any of the other dystopian, post-apocalyptic stories aimed at teens) so popular? There’s never one reason for anything, of course, but I’d speculate that one reason for the popularity of books like these is the way they scratch a particular itch we all have to experience a certain sort of aloneness, a certain sort of freedom, a certain sort of wilderness. In the dystopian future, a teen has to take care of him or herself. She has to live by her wits. In the dystopian future, parents are gone or ineffectual or well-meaning but misguided: survival depends on your own gut instincts.

Obviously, such impulses toward wilderness and wildness, when spun out to conclusions of cage-fighting and post-cataclysm social breakdown, should only be satisfied vicariously. But what does it mean — to experience wilderness — at this mediated moment in our history? Should that experience even be possible? Should we mourn if it can’t be? And above all, how can it be accomplished if your parents are always right there beside you, dogging your every step?

Read it and Weep, or What Have We Wrought?

“The Overprotected Kid: A preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery—without making it safer…”  (The Atlantic, April 2014)

The gap between what people fear (abduction by a stranger) and what’s actually happening (family turmoil and custody battles) is revealing. What has changed since the 1970s is the nature of the American family, and the broader sense of community. For a variety of reasons—divorce, more single-parent families, more mothers working—both families and neighborhoods have lost some of their cohesion. It is perhaps natural that trust in general has eroded, and that parents have sought to control more closely what they can—most of all, their children.

Slice of Life

I haven’t read the book yet (it comes out today), but this is from Sunday’s  NY Times Q & A with Debora Spar, President of Barnard and author of Wonder Women:  Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection:

“….I raced home from work, I was putting dinner on the table, and I was racing out the door to go to a PTA meeting. My son, who was all of 8 at the time, said, “Why are you doing this?” I looked at him and said, “It’s very important to me that I go to your school.” He said, “Why?” I said, “Well, I’m part of the community and this is about you and your school.” And he said, “I want you home.” It was one of those moments. I realized I was trying to be a perfect community member on top of being a professional and a mother, and I couldn’t do it all. I stopped going to PTA meetings after that.”

The Times says that in her book, Ms. Spar argues

 that at every stage of life, from childhood to old age, women are straining to reach impossible standards.

“My generation made a mistake,” Ms. Spar writes. “We took the struggles and the victories of feminism and interpreted them somehow as a pathway to personal perfection. We privatized feminism and focused only on our dreams and our own inevitable frustrations.”

Is Ms. Spar’s generation my generation?  A 40-year-old’s?  Not sure.  But as the mother of two daughters, I’m interested in the possible ramifications of what Spar calls the “privatization of feminism.”

Treading Water: or, The Deep End

This is it, then.  The lovely nutmeat of the summer.  The musty smell of tomatoes pulled from the vine; the scent of sun-baked dirt before the afternoon’s rain storm.  Sweat that teases the hair at the nape of Elder Girleen’s neck into tendrils; the beautiful, enveloping ache of refrigerated air when we finally get the front door unlocked after a morning spent running errands.

It’s just a second’s work:  from heat dense enough to weigh it in your hands to its inverse — such coolness!  Our work-a-day world’s attempt to imitate nature’s best, most magical decanting of summer: that knife-sharp plunge from land into water on the hottest July afternoon.

Lacking large, natural bodies of water around here, our pursuit of that leap, that head-clearing, breath-taking instant leads us to — where else? — the swimming pool.

Which I have written about here, and elsewhere.

The rest of this post could be spent lamenting the fact that Younger Girleen doesn’t seem to have advanced much beyond the class she took two years ago (the evidence, it seems, is right here). Could be spent divulging that if Motherhood were, in fact, a board game, I might’ve earned two points for the lunch packed for the girleens to eat today pool side (perfect isosceles triangles cut from a watermelon so ripe it split itself before the pressure of the knife blade reached it; last night’s left0ver, handmade California rolls) and then lost three more points due to the sad fact that not only had I just plain forgotten to bring with us clothes to change into, I’d gotten us to the pool ten minutes late for a thirty minute lesson.

This post could be all that, but instead, let us examine —

Happiness.

For that topic, subgenre  parents, in particular, has once again hit news stands in a recent New York magazine article titled “All Joy and No Fun:  Why Parents Hate Parenting”.

The article’s entertaining, and brings up many valid points, and in the end says about the same thing we all probably would’ve said before we read it, which is —

Yes, it defies logic, yes, by the standards by which we judge happiness these days it shouldn’t be the case, but all the same, us parents wouldn’t change a thing.

I read the article yesterday, and discussed it with The Husband this morning, and today, as I sat at the side of the pool during the twenty minutes respite swimming lessons gives me (just think — I would have had thirty if I hadn’t been late!) my thoughts kept idly circling back to it.

The pool is such a perfect rectangle; I adore its shimmer, its precise angles, the way that, in order to experience it, we all — always — have to strip down. I was not the only parent who brought their offspring to the lesson late.  All around me, mothers were frantically spritzing their children with sunscreen before sending them off to the side of the pool.  All around me, mothers were conducting business, on their cell phones.

We’re all so earnest these days, aren’t we?  We work — at everything — so hard.

The Summer Fiction issue of the New Yorker was open on my lap — because  I tell myself that as a fiction writer it’s part of my job to know exactly who the 20 writers under 40 are this year that will blow me away.

I am no longer under forty.

I have probably not lived up to my potential.

I don’t necessarily mean I haven’t lived up to my potential professionally, though that might or might not be true.  I suppose what I mean is this:  Wisdom, and possibly the idea of happiness (or unhappiness, as the case may be), might in some part, however glancingly, hinge on the realization that none of us live up to our potential.

Recently, I read a blog post that began:  I’m a great mom, even though I don’t…

And just as recently, someone turned to me and said:  I’m a bad mom, but…

Both these statements, arbitrarily thrown into this topic as they might be, contain within them  the same thing. An ideal, and the recognition that we can’t live up to that ideal (because I can’t help but believe that any woman who says in print I’m a great mom harbors the secret fear that she’s actually not).  Ever.  We have none of us lived up to our potential.

But over there, in the swimming pool, in all those kids awkwardly churning around?

Pure potential.

How can parenthood not be complicated?  How can we not be ambivalent?  Seeing — and experiencing, second hand — our children’s potential gives us such an undeserved second chance.  But at the same time it reminds us each and every day, every single second, of what we — because we have to, that’s what growing up is — no longer have.

I was particularly struck by the following paragraph in that New York article:

More generous government policies, a sounder economy, a less pressured culture that values good rather than perfect kids—all of these would certainly make parents happier. But even under the most favorable circumstances, parenting is an extraordinary activity, in both senses of the word extra: beyond ordinary and especially ordinary. While children deepen your emotional life, they shrink your outer world to the size of a teacup, at least for a while. (“All joy and no fun,” as an old friend with two young kids likes to say.) Lori Leibovich, the executive editor of Babble and the anthologyMaybe Baby, a collection of 28 essays by writers debating whether to have children, says she was particularly struck by the female contributors who’d made the deliberate choice to remain childless. It enabled them to travel or live abroad for their work; to take physical risks; to, in the case of a novelist, inhabit her fictional characters without being pulled away by the demands of a real one. “There was a richness and texture to their work lives that was so, so enviable,” she says. (Leibovich has two children.)

The ability to travel, to live abroad, to take physical risks, to inhabit fictional characters — golly gee, those things sound fun, don’t they? Those things are fun. And guess what,  experiencing them doesn’t often remind us of our inabilities, our lacks, our failure to live up to our potential, because if they do, we just stop doing them.

Parenthood, on the other hand, is with us always.  We can’t decide to quit doing it, the way one might conceivably decide to quit travelling and settle down.

Maybe the next generation will  get it better than we do — that we waste far far too much of our time weighing entirely dissimilar things on a single scale.

The End of the World as We Know It?

So… Elder Girleen’s elementary school is holding a Walk to School Day next month.

Because…

Well, you know.  Kids don’t.  Walk to school.

We don’t.  Our excuse:  we live 2.14 miles from school, and there’s no bus (another story).  I tell myself that if we lived only a tenth of a mile  from school, we would, but it’s probably best not to make judgements until I’ve walked a tenth of a mile in other folks’ moccasins.

In any case, in the service of Walk to School Day, I’ve volunteered to chaperone a Walking School Bus from a designated drop-off spot, so that kids who live too far away can experience walking to school.

Ah, modern life, that peculiar country!  Where homework is called “Home Enrichment.” Where playing at a friend’s house is called a “Play Date.” Where all those  things that used to just happen are now capitalized, and a parent walking a group of kids to school is called a “Walking School Bus.”

Around here, Walk to School Days are organized, in part, by a local nonprofit group, and in their organizational capacity, that group has sent us chaperones  “Consent Forms” we can have  parents to sign  (at our discretion) should they choose  to have their child walk to school.

Just to make sure we all know what’s what:

Potential Risks

Through the requirement of parental, legal guardian, or other adult supervision along each student participant’s entire route to and from school, the Walking School Bus program hopes to reduce the risk of injury to children. However, there are risks associated with child pedestrians.  The typical risks for child pedestrians include injuries caused by falls, overexertion, carelessness, contact with other participants, or, in some cases, motor vehicles.

That about sums things up, doesn’t it?


In the Trenches

Mildly (it’s to be hoped) entertaining anecdotes about squirrels and cupcakes set in playgrounds aside, I’ve spent a heck of a lot of time in City of Atlanta parks this summer, and being in such places has made me think.

About what?

Oh,  among other things …  littering; our tax dollars; how children socialize and play; how adults socialize and play; why parks north of interstate 20 are better equipped than those south of 20…

But mainly, just about every time we set foot on a playground and Elder Girleen looks around in dismay and cries But there’s nobody here to play with! I think

Where are the kids?

It being summer and all, you’d think that playgrounds would run a close second to swimming pools as places overrun with children.  This turns out — in Atlanta, GA, at least — to not necessarily be true.  Sure, there’s the random nanny or two, and  sometimes a couple Baby Mamas (by that I mean moms with infants who come to parks to compare notes) but kids above the age of say… four?  They’re an endangered species.

You could explain this away by saying it’s hot; or that they’re too jaded for playgrounds — but the thing is, they’re not really anywhere else, either.  Not on the playing fields, or in front yards, or on sidewalks playing hopscotch or riding bikes, either.

They’re all at Day Camp.

Circus camp, rock climbing camp, tennis camp, art camp, nature camp, science camp — Atlanta’s full of them. And though I don’t have a single bone to pick with day camps (you’d have to work hard to get worked up about something so benign), over the summer I’ve realized that  it wouldn’t hurt any of us parent types to actually sit down for  a second and think about the reasons they exist in such numbers, and examine the implications that existence might have for the ecosystem we swim around in.

What is the reason an aimless kid over six is such a rare bird?

I posit:  If both parents have to work outside the home from 8 – 6 year round, you’ve got to park the kids somewhere.

And voila, just like that, the idea of unsupervised, freewheeling, laid-back summer disappears from our world.

Of course, I have selfish reasons for questioning this status quo — due to The Husband’s enforced hiatus from the working world last winter and spring, we refrained from planning much of anything during the summer that cost much of anything, whether it was a couple of weeks of day camp for the kids or a week’s vacation at the beach.  Because of that, we’ve spent a lot of time trolling playgrounds and the streets and pools for things to do, and gee, I wish we’d find more folks who were doing the same.

But selfish motivations aside, all these empty playgrounds might raise a few larger questions.

Do I have the answers?  Heck no, I’m not even sure I know what the questions are, other than this one:  is this really where we want to be?

Lately, I’ve run across a couple of motherhood-related blog topics/essays on the New York Times website that have given me pause.  One, a posting in Lisa Belkin’s Motherlode called “Scaling Back Career for Baby,” included the following comment from a woman who, having just had her first child, was finding that returning to “work” (by which she meant socially-acceptable work outside the home that one gets paid money for, of course) was more complicated than she’d imagined:

I used to secretly look down on stay-at-home moms. I’m not proud of being so judgmental, but opting out seemed like the easy road to me, an excuse to avoid the 9-to-5. If I asked someone I just met at a party what she did for a living and her answer was “I stay at home with the kids,” I’d mentally check out of the conversation. Surely I had nothing in common with this person.

Oh, granted, she’s contrite, and acknowledges her sins. Oh, granted, this divide’s been around since Day One and is nothing new.  But still…

Also on the NY Times website, exhibit two; a recent Judith Warner column, “Insult and Injury,” which took as its turf Warner’s suspicion “that highly successful working mothers suffer a disproportionate amount of scorn when they fail to have the time or available space on their mental hard drives to do things like memorize school handbooks or master Bundt baking,” in which she offers up her friends’ credentials as a”high level newspaper executive” and “a long-time television reporter, anchor and mother of two…” as if only that would make  them legitimate human beings in her reader’s eyes.

The fact that the major debate of modern parenthood is still being framed in this way — and by highly intelligent women, no less  — astounds me.  The biggest question of our time might be not which is better, the stay-at-home mom, or the “highly successful working mother,” but why we have all  have swallowed the idea, hook-line-and-sinker, that economic productivity makes one a more valuable person. That the “work” that takes you away from your “life” is more important than anything for which we don’t get paid.

Because, meanwhile, the tumbleweeds are blowing through —heck, not just our playgrounds and parks, but down our streets — and wouldn’t it be great if along with the adults getting to be adults, the kids got to be kids?  If we all stood up on our hind legs and roared that all this working  just might not be working?  That women who are fulfilled by work they do outside the home deserve more time, and that women who are fulfilled by work they do within the home are just as productive members of society as anybody else.

Word of the Day

Abnegation.

A word I’ve never had the slightest opportunity to use. Denial, the dictionary has to say about it, particularly self-denial.

I have so little self-denial! a person might say coyly when presented with — particularly this time of year — a plate of goodies, just before they reconsider — oh, well, on second thought! — and reach a hand toward a particularly tempting bite.

Other than that usage — so blithe, so redolent of pop psychology — I can’t imagine a single way self-denial might be inserted into conversation: it’s a concept that’s been stripped of meaning, an act long ago fallen out of fashion.

I’m certainly not bemoaning that fact. To practice self-denial — what would be the point? What would it be for, other than …. I dunno. To prove a point? For one’s own good? You give up smoking, you turn down a rich piece of cake, you practice self-denial. Maybe you exchange all the old-style lightbulbs in your house and turn down the heat.

Our culture keeps the concept of self-denial firmly on a transactional level. You give something up — you get something in return. You cut the sugar from your diet, you are gifted with… (I suppose)… better health.   You simplify your life, you’re blessed with… tranquility and peace.

So abnegation means self-denial, and there’s little point (who cares?) discussing it.

But then there’s the verb form of the word …

Four days ago, after I gave up on driving so aimlessly and at the same time so purposefully through the neighborhood with my freight of sleepless child and all my complicated baggage — of what I needed, of what she needed, of what should happen, of what was most important — the word self-abnegation all of a sudden seemed scrawled across my afternoon in bold, black, foot-high, maybe even flaming, letters.

To abnegate: To deny, renounce; to surrender, to relinquish.

So Latinate, so medieval! And the interesting thing about the definition is the way it changes our focus from the transactional nature of self-denial (at least as we see it these days, hair shirts having gone, also, out of fashion) to something much more difficult, and powerful: the struggle. If denying, renouncing, surrendering or relinquishing isn’t the hardest frigging work you’ve ever engaged in then I sure don’t want your job, whatever it might be.

In parenthood, one’s will continuously butts up against something so much larger and stronger than it is — a life force? A universe? —  and there is something downright… religious about the — I don’t know what else to call it — self-abnegation that almost always is the lesson learned.  There is nothing concretely transactional about the self-abnegation of parenthood:  I mean, I can sacrifice my desires for my child’s well-being until I’m blue in the face, but it’s not ever ever ever going to get me back into a size 6 pair of jeans. 

This sort of sacrifice is dangerous stuff. This is poking at the dark heart of motherhood — here there be dragons! — with a particularly strong stick. This is mixing the theological (or the spiritual) with the everyday, and to do so is anathema (interestingly enough, another religious word) to the people and the culture we are these days.

Is the self-abnegation that is part and parcel of parenthood good or bad? I’m not saying ( I don’t know; I made a C in Existential Philosophy at UGA in 1983). It just is, as loathe as we are to acknowledge it.

A couple of other religiously-connotated words:

Fanaticism.
Fervor.

Oh, they’re not words connected to us, (even should we have a religious affiliation, these things being also these days somewhat out of vogue) but belong to other people’s lives, across oceans and far away.

But throw those sorts of words into the parenthood mix and what do you get?

A culture where parent participation is sometimes elevated to a byzantine art?  Where guilt can be paramount?  One where places exist where parents must undergo interviews to get their kids in preschool?  

Wow, that world’s not oceans away from us … it’s right down the street, at least from the house I most often find myself living in! 
Any state of being that requires extremes from an individual … may also pull forth extremes of behavior from within them as well. In short, if you expect a person to put hours and hours and hours of time every week into their childs’ … school… sport… whatever… maybe you’re going to have to not just tolerate but embrace some fervor and fanaticism as well.       

Food For Thought…

First grade.  Those first few weeks as the family transitions back into the school year schedule can be a killer.  Elder Girleen has bags under her eyes like she’s been cramming for a final, but honest, Ms. M the First Grade Teacher, she’s in bed by eight!  

Last night, though, I know she was up a little later:  I could hear her in her bedroom reading On the Banks of Plum Creek to herself for at least half an hour.  Reading a chapter book.  The second week of first grade.  I myself don’t remember much about first grade besides the tedium of Sally, Dick and Jane and the morning nit-check (it being 1970 in small town Georgia after all).  
First grade is just not what it was back then in those primitive days; in fact, a couple of times it has already seemed to me like Elder Girleen’s first grade is my first grade experience, completely inverted.  She can read like nobody’s business already; I was grinding through books with little more two words on each page at that age.  But on the other hand, I was walking by myself to school.  Elder Girleen can’t.  
Her school isn’t within walking distance from our house, which makes things easier for me:  I don’t have to face any hard choices about whether or not she should.  But every morning when I drive her there or carpool with the neighbor, I think about the way things used to be — the quarter bestowed upon me so I could stop for ice cream at the soda fountain at the pharmacy on the way home, the fact that once I walked all the way home from school backwards, and down one of Athens, Georgia’s main artery streets, no less — and the way they are now, when letting a first grader play in the front yard of your house may be a fraught proposition.  
All this is a rich vein to mine.  And Leonore Skenazy, a New York City mom and New York Sun columnist does just that, here. In case you missed the uproar (as I had), Skenazy let her nine-year-old take the subway home from Bloomingdale’s without a parental escort and then wrote about the experience for her column.  Two days later she was on the Today Show (this is much worse than ending up on the cover of “Bad Mommy Monthly”).  
Not saying I agree with everything she says … but it is food for thought.   

Cooperation/Corporation, Continued

Spring has sprung here in the ‘hood. Painting crews are blasting conjunto music while they scrape and prep houses in a repainting ritual that seems to take place every spring. The lenten roses, green belles of the early spring ball, are laden with demure blossoms. The Bradford pear trees are a confectionary of exploded cotton batting.

And just as there has been every single spring for the past five years, controversy is reaching a boiling point at the cooperative preschool where we’ve thrown in our lot.

Cooperative preschools — or for that matter, Montessori preschools, Waldorf preschools, Reggio Emilia-method based preschools, and state-funded preschools— were not something I was aware of, pre-children (I actually don’t have enough fingers or toes to count up all the things I knew nothing of, pre-children). To tell you the truth, I didn’t put a whole lot of thought into exactly what you did with kids once you had them. I knew they went to kindergarten at five, but other than that…. who knew?

Now that I’ve got six years of parenthood under my belt, I’ve come to appreciate the cooperative approach to preschool education (and maybe that will be blog fodder on a slow day), but in the beginning I made the decision to enroll Elder Girleen there when she was 1 1/2 based solely on this: the cooperative preschool was close to our house, I was attracted to its flexible schedul, she and I both needed some breathing space from each other, and I’d seen the children enrolled there as they marched (or rather strolled and rode on shoulders) in the annual free-spirited neighborhood parade.

They looked happy. In fact, they were happy — they are. Under the nurturing guidance of a cadre of teachers, a hardworking preschool director and all those fellow parents who “own” a cooperative preschool and pitch in when the building floods or someone has a baby or a child’s nose needs wiped, my daughters have blossomed into a sharp, inquisitive, polite (mostly), poised little people.

Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? But at the same time, that annual free-spirited neighborhood festival, now one of Atlanta’s biggest events, is sponsored by Red Hook Beer, and the preschool (now just Younger Girleen’s school) might just as easily be described as a loose consortium of small fractious countries, each with its own nuclear warhead and fingers itchy to start hostilities. In short, things change in five years. Or maybe it’s just that the Pristine Surface is always, no matter where you find it, in good part about spin.

Last year I was on the board of directors at the preschool. Quasi-political, following — roughly, chaotically — the same Roberts Rules of Order that theoretically instill parliamentary procedure into everything from neighborhood meetings to … well, uhh … preschool board meetings; equal parts tedium, political brinkmanship and occasionally, heartwarming cooperation, the board of the preschool and the time I spent serving on it dragged me, kicking and screaming, to a level of social and political engagement that, before I had children, I mostly chose to observe from the sidelines.

Maybe because of that fact, this year my role can be best described as that of a mostly disinterested bystander. Not for me, board meetings that last for three hours where life-affecting details such as whether or not the child-drawn figure that serves as the school’s logo “looks lonely” at the top of the school letterhead are discussed. Not for me, those sidelong looks and huddles of two or three board members on the playground as the latest board powerplay or malfeasance is dissected. You might even say that I find myself watching this year’s controversy build the way you might watch a car crash — o, that spectacular fishtail! o, the crumpled bumper! somebody call 911!

Past springs, preschool controversies have involved everything from teacher hirings and firings to the possible dissolution of classes for certain ages of children. The specifics of this year’s controversy don’t really matter. The globals, though, as I read them, involve where you stand on the following statement:

Our organization is a non-profit educational institution, not a for-profit corporation with shareholders, etc.

This year, my motto as far as my preschool duties has been to tell myself yo! you can’t expect a sorority to behave like a commune, and even though this is about as inane as saying it is what it is, I’ve drawn a lot of comfort from it. People at the preschool generally mean well. I’m not so sure I would’ve wanted a commune anyway — we all know what happened to most of those idealistic sixties utopias.

Apparently, though, while I’m busy mouthing platitudes and keeping my head in the sand, the firestorm has been raging. I bumped into the poor soul who took my place on the board at the playground and she had a wild look in her eye. “The emails!” she cried. “One came down that said ‘we’re trying to run this place like a corporation.’ She took a deep breath. “A corporation! The first time I read that one, I read cooperation. That’s what it really is, right?”

Cooperation/Corporation. Ah, you wondered how I was going to pull this one off!

The answer is: I’m afraid I can’t pull it off at all. The serial nature of the medium has made me realize I’m on thin ice, narrative-wise: this one is just too hard for me to tackle. In blog form. Without a Ph.D. in Political Science. Or Philosophy. Or a bigger, less-mommified brain.

But I guess the point I might be trying for is this: As I stood there at Elder Girleen’s school while the Pledge was being recited, it dawned on my that we might all have some idealized vision of democracy, and the United States, lodged in our DNA. One vote, one voice! Our ancestors did mostly wash up on these shores believing this to be the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, after all.

So there we are, standing on that bedrock. But we live our day-to-day lives swimming (and sometimes drowning) in a sea of capitalist impulses. That’s why, when the parents charged with making decisions about a cooperative preschool get going, they start borrowing ideas from the corporate world. It’s not like they’ve been working on kibbutzim their whole lives! Where else are they going to get ideas from?

This is a big question. Maybe the BIGGEST question. But I think lots of folks are starting to ask it; that maybe the desire to find the answer to that is in the ether these days.

Apologies for the sociopolitical content of the last few days (we’re done now, I promise).

Howdy to all the folks in Texas who are in the political spotlight today.

Cooperation/Corporation

Part One

Mornings when I take Elder Girleen to school, I usually hang around for fifteen minutes for Morning Meeting, a daily occurrence that involves 360 drowsy kids with sleep still in their eyes sitting criss-cross applesauce on the floor of the auditorium for a couple of announcements, a song or two and a factual snippet (such as: what exactly is leap day, what is a primary election, did you know that George Washington Carver invented over 400 things to do with sweet potatoes?).  

They also scramble up off the floor for the Pledge of Allegiance, as do all the teachers and any parent-types who’ve stuck around.  

I certainly don’t think of myself as the patriotic type.  I don’t go to baseball games.  In fact, before Elder Girleen started kindergarten I probably hadn’t said the Pledge of Allegiance since I was in elementary school.    
But, just as you never forget how to ride a bike, you never forget how the Pledge goes.  The hand folded earnestly across the heart!  Those words:  and liberty and justice for all
On one hand, it seems so anachronistic, so quaint.  But on the other, because of who everyone standing there in that circa 1929 auditorium is (an American) and probably because we all stood in similar settings saying the same words when we were the same impressionable age that Elder Girleen is now (6), I find that I have an emotional reaction to their meaning.  
And liberty and justice for all.  For the few short moments it takes to say them, I believe.
Are they true or false?  Wiser heads than mine are debating that as we speak, and have been doing so ever since they were written.  Because of my status as mom,* I’m not going to weigh in on the actual veracity of those words, though I certainly have my own opinion about it.
Some of my first political memories:  my mother weeping during the six o’clock news as wives of soldiers missing in Vietnam were interviewed; my confusion between the IRA (who were particularly active right then) and the IRS (who upset my father); adult discussions about assassinations; the way the airing of the Watergate  hearings meant there were no cartoons to be watched on TV.  Given all that, it would be easy to say I turned out cynical about our country’s political underpinnings. 
But peel back the callused skin of every adult American and you might find a child who once stood hand-over-heart and said and liberty and justice for all and believed it.  
We tend to forget that as we age.  These are skeptical times; they might even be the end times, for all we know.  But I would submit that under our cynicism the desire at least to believe in the idea of democracy is practically encoded in our DNA.
   
*Though motherhood can be a deeply political act, I find that in the day to day of motherhood, talking politics is generally frowned upon:  I mean, how can you force yourself to go to a particular play group every week if you know the moms you’re having coffee with LOVE Mike Huckabee?  I was with a group of moms I knew socially every morning during the week the Iraq War started — did it come up?  Not just no, but hell, no.  
Part Two

Currently, the husband and I are obsessed with the TV show The Wire.  We won’t even get into the fact that the pop-culture cognoscenti were first watching, and raving about, The Wire all of five years ago.  We don’t have cable around here and besides, five years ago we were too sleep-deprived to follow complex story lines along the  lines of The Wire’s. Anyway, now the show’s on DVD so we can watch it every single night.  This is lovely from a narrative point of view, sort of like having a long novel that never ends to look forward to every night, but it also colors one’s world view.

The Wire takes a sprawling Dickensian look at life in urban America, and it confirms many of my most-cherished observations about the way the world works: more than half the time the time the good guys are on the take; doing the “right thing” tends to get people screwed; self-interest, power, politics and greed might be the forces that really shape American society.* The framework in The Wire is politics and public safety, but you could just as easily apply its tropes to any institution in American society: white-collar corporations, community organizations, even — dare I say it with a straight face? — cooperative preschools.

But how can those two ideologies — that of the starry-eyed child saying the Pledge of Allegiance who believes democracy is something to be championed and that of the grizzled cynic, who believes that the Will to Power greases the wheels of industry and politics — exist in my body simultaneously?

Bingo. Cooperation and Corporation. The two conflicting impulses that define American behavior.

*For an interesting take on The Wire, click here.