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.”

The Future

So yesterday I was at Elder Girleen’s second-grade classroom for the monthly birthday commemoration, which consisted of a cheer and a song for the three kids with January birthdays.*  

On the surface, that was all that was taking place.  But because I just spent almost two weeks away from the usual routines of my life,**  thinking about writing and what makes it work to the exclusion of almost all else, I haven’t completely lost the ability —yet — to hold  two thoughts*** in my mind simultaneously.

Elder Girleen’s school was built in 1929, which is comforting to us geezer parents, because it feels a lot like the schools we attended ourselves.  This is a good thing because what goes on inside it— how multiplication is taught these days, for instance, is a completely puzzlement — can be completely unfamiliar to us, and you know how parents react to things that are different.  

These were two of the spelling words written on the board:



 Another section of the board was devoted to what had clearly been a discussion about writing, and included — God love us all! — the words narrative arc and dramatic tension.  

Did I say that this was a second grade classroom?  Don’t know about you but I didn’t hear those terms bandied about much until I was in graduate school.  

Much is being made these days about the death of print journalism — and possibly of professional writing in general.  Having just spent a full day in an airport waiting for my flight home to ultimately be cancelled, I can tell you that if you want to kill time with a magazine these days you’re pretty much shit out of luck.  

Will Apple’s new tablet computer save us?  The pundits seem doubtful.  And all you have to do is read last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine feature about the author James Patterson  and learn that one out of every 17 novels sold in the U.S. was written by a marketing-savvy former ad-exec to harbor some doubts yourself.  

But even as we’re busily killing off the idea of the writer as a professional who can make a living by his/her pen, we apparently are just as busily attempting to teach our children to write at increasingly sophisticated levels.  

What to make of this?  I’m certainly not complaining; I want my children to be good writers and readers.  And I know such skills transfer, and will be useful to them, whether or not they pick up a pencil or a book in their adult lives.  

But meantime, the publishing industry wallows.  It flounders helplessly, it continually bemoans its fate. Opportunities are squandered, right and left, and a person is hard pressed to find a book in the airport that isn’t by James Patterson.  

*Then they ate some sweet stuff, which is how all important events are recognized in elementary school.  

**We all can read between the lines here:  what I really mean is there was no one under four feet tall strapped in the backseat of the car crying Mommy, mommy, you’re REALLY not listening to me! when my attention wandered from their recitation of the plot of the movie The Tooth Fairy for a second or two.

***However inane they might be.

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.

Not Women’s Work, not Men’s Work, just… Work

Last night I sat and watched President Obama’s press conference — feeling such a moment of awe and pride during that measured second when he settled himself at the podium before he began:  we did that, America, we did, for a moment we transcended who we usually are and became something so much larger — and then I sat down at the computer and emailed my senators, Isakson and Chambliss, asking them in no uncertain terms to vote for the economic stimulus plan.  

Will it do any good?  
If by “good” we’re asking if those two will vote for the plan,  probably not.
Does that mean I shouldn’t have bothered?  
Asking that does as little good as wondering about trees that fall in forests and who hears them, and whether they might make a sound as they come crashing to the ground. 

If You Live in Georgia…

…it’s not over yet.  

Please — don’t forget to vote in the run-off on December 2nd.  McCain, Palin and the rest of the gang will be down here in the next few weeks to shore up Chambliss’s campaign.  Swinging by your polling place before or after work could make all the difference.  
If you live elsewhere: 
In 2002, Saxby Chambliss won a Georgia Senate seat by comparing his Democratic opponent (a Vietnam vet and double amputee who uses a wheelchair) to Osama bin Laden.  Please consider commemorating Veteran’s Day today by donating to Jim Martin’s campaign to unseat Chambliss.   

Weather Report: November 9, 2008

I admit it, I had grand plans.  In the final weeks before the election, when I’d developed a twitch in one eye due to obsessive  Huffington Post reading (and from the anxiety those daily emails from the Obama campaign were causing), I was going to get out with a camera and document what I think we all already knew, even then, no matter what the outcome was going to be, was history in the making… 

  • …the car pool line at Elder Girleen’s elementary school, the row of mini vans and station wagons and compacts, most with Obama stickers pasted to their bumpers….
  • …a jack o lantern carved with the already-so-recognizable Obama campaign logo, placed on a front porch next to a house with a McCain/Palin yard sign …
  • …the GO VOTE exhortation chalked in pastel on the sidewalk  half a block away …
  • … the early morning line our neighborhood’s polling place had never witnessed before…

So much has been written.   Judith Warner’s New York Times column from last week, here, says much,  and so very eloquently.  

On Wednesday, November 5, I walked out my front door and was astounded to see that while I had my mind on other things, the leaves on the trees had miraculously, gloriously, shed the dull-green cast late summer gave them and turned gold.  I know we need rain like nobody’s business, but the blue sky that’s arched behind those trees this week, so cloudless, so saturated with color — it made me ache.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so hopeful.  
Yesterday, I drove interstate 20 in the early morning … turned off it onto Highway 138 and began the drive to Athens, past Quick Trips that a month ago had no gas in their pumps, past blocky contemporary cemeteries where graves were brave with bouquets of plastic flowers.  Past a Baptist church where cut-apart and welded-back-together metal drum smokers had already been fired up and barbeque was in a couple of hours going to be sold.  Past a salvage yard that stretched out over acres, where the cars had been positioned nose to tail, starred of windshield, sporting crumpled bumpers. 
The first time I was able to vote, Ronald Reagan was elected president.  
The trees are at this moment such a brave lick of flame and color, and what if it really were morning in America, right now?

Snapshot from America

I admit it, I’m obsessed.  About what, you ask?  

Uhhh…”The Great Schlep.”
Uhhh…. “That One.” 
Uhhh… “Hockey Moms.”  
Since when did hockey moms become such a large block of the mommy population?  I’m surprised that the Ultimate Mommy Stereotype  has gone from “soccer mom” (minivan, suburbs, middle-class, what-have-you…) to “hockey mom” (uhhh, what attributes go with that?I guess I’m not tapped in to this new cultural zeitgeist, seeing as I live down south and all)  without comment — but I’m sure I can google the words together and discover that it really hasn’t. * 
And that is why I’m obsessed.  
Current Politics — more engrossing than fiction.  
But on a more serious note: Last night, halfway through the presidential debate, I realized something.  As far as this neighborhood went, while the debate was going on, you could hear a pin drop.  There was not a single car on the road.  
*See this.  Apparently “hockey mom” was parsed about a month ago.  I’m really not in tune with the cultural zeitgeist.  

Routes to Power

So… now that serving as president of your child’s PTA is  being touted as a excellent qualification  for serving as Vice President of this country, it seems like as good a time as any to turn our attention to just that… the PTA.

It’s not like I’m an expert or anything.  Yeah, I’m a member of the PTA at Elder Girleen’s school but that’s mainly because all it required from us was writing a small check at the beginning of the school year.  I actually didn’t know we had a choice in the matter:  I thought membership in the PTA was mandatory until this year, when I found out that 20% of the families at our school have chosen to opt out.  As far as I could tell, being a member of the PTA once your children hit elementary school was a prerequisite of motherhood:  you wear sensible shoes, you keep baby wipes in your handbag, you join the PTA.  No questions about it.
Serving on the PTA in some official capacity, though… that’s another thing all together.  A year on the board of Elder Girleen’s preschool cured me of any impulses I might’ve had to volunteer for things like that, so as far as the inner workings of the PTA goes, I’m about as clueless as the average Joe, who until Sarah Palin gave her past presidency of a school’s PTA as a good reason to vote for the McCain/Palin ticket, never gave the PTA a second thought.
I won’t weigh in here the pros or cons of the organization itself (it’s always existed, so it has to be worthwhile, right?) — my interest is more in examining the idea of a position in the PTA as a route to power.
And for me, the most interesting thing about examining the PTA in that light is just how non-threatening it sounds.  Hey, our moms were in the PTA.  Some of us might’ve even had moms who served as president of the PTA. It’s as American as apple pie!  Whatever things the PTA actually undertakes, it also serves — and maybe this is its most important function? — as a very traditional, feminine way to have, or take, power.  Within its very codified structure, a woman can become very powerful… without neglecting her primary duties as mom (because it’s for the children, even though they may be at home with a babysitter during PTA meetings).  Serving as president of the PTA has none of the negative (ie, unfeminine) connotations of … what?  Community Organizer (sounds vaguely commie-pinko, doesn’t it?)  Human Rights Activist?  (ditto).
If I have little idea what the PTA really does, I have even less of one about what the PTA does at a national level.  But one thing I do know is that a PTA president is probably not making policy.
When I next need to sit down across the table from a potential employer, will I mention the fact that I served on the board of my child’s preschool and sat around conference tables at City Hall East attempting to win City functionaries over to the idea that our neighborhood deserved a park that served as more than a trash heap for malt liquor cans and a play structure that wasn’t being partially held together with plastic security webbing?  You bet.  Because whether the outside world chooses to recognize it or not, it’s work, and it’s important work. And it’s as difficult, or more so, than any job I received a paycheck for.
Whatever genius thought up the McCain/Palin strategy of highlighting Palin’s PTA presidency and status as hockey-mom is hoping women will focus on that and not much more.  Wondering what exactly those qualifications have to do with running a country makes you… what?  A sexist?  An elitist?  Someone denigrating women’s work?
But here are the facts:  the larger picture doesn’t really impact a PTA president.  Reasons a child might need reduced-price lunch, or a family might feel completely incapable of volunteering to organize a bake sale… or an auction… don’t have to matter to a PTA president. They might matter to some of them, but they don’t have to.   Heck, a PTA president doesn’t even need to understand that children or families which such issues exist.
I know, there are so many other scary things going on right now — but gosh, let’s be sure to add that one to the list.