Archive for July, 2012

Just enough food not to starve.

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

A librarian I haven’t seen for a while greeted me the other day. I like him, so I tried not to wince too visibly when he asked my least favorite question: “So, are you guys still homeschooling?”

Librarians are important. Children’s librarians especially are potential ambassadors for the homeschooling cause. So I had to cultivate.

Yes, we were still homeschooling.

I could see him settling in for a nice, thorough round of questioning. Did we have to register with the state? Did we belong to official homeschool groups? What about testing?

I answered as reassuringly as possible. No, we didn’t have to test, but many homeschoolers choose to. Yes, we belong to lots and lots of groups. (Didn’t pursue the “official” aspect of that.) Yes, the state knew we existed.

All the rest of that day, our conversation bothered us. I thought it must just be a minor case of burnout. The same questions over and over get old.

It is that. But it isn’t just that.

Most homeschoolers I know do exactly what I did when civilians haul out the grill. We do everything we can to put their fears at rest. Deep down, we feel a little irritated, and then we feel a little guilty. These are fair questions, aren’t they?

No.

They’re not.

They’re incredibly insulting. Worse than insulting.

Here’s why.

Imagine the conversation going a little differently. Same questions, different answers. Something like this:

“So — are you still homeschooling?”

[Long pause. Long stare.] “Yeees. Yes, I still have a child and I’m still looking after his education. I’m still feeding him, too. Every day.”

[Looks startled, but quickly rallies.] “Oh. So, you have to register with the state, right?”

“We have to fill in about ten minutes of electronic ‘paperwork’ a year. It probably took longer to fill in my son’s birth certificate. The birth certificate took a lot more thought.”

“But you have to take standardized tests, right?”

“No.”

“Don’t you have to follow an official curriculum or something?”

“Absolutely not.”

“But then how does the state know you’re teaching your child?”

“The state doesn’t know any such thing.”

“But — well, how is that even legal? You say you’re homeschooling, but you could be doing anything! Or nothing at all!”

“I suppose that’s true. And what about you?”

“What about me? I don’t homeschool!”

“That’s right. Your daughter goes to school, doesn’t she? I guess that means she’s checking in with the government every day, in a way. But she hasn’t been going to school her whole life. She was at home for years. And you registered with the state, in a manner of speaking, when she was born — for her birth certificate, and then for her Social Security number. How did the state know you were feeding her every day before she started going to school?”

“That’s a ridiculous question!”

“It isn’t. It’s exactly what you’re asking me. You’re assuming that if the government isn’t after me every minute, I won’t take care of my child. Apparently, just having a kid doesn’t give me any incentive for doing more than the absolute bare-bones legal minimum of whatever I can get away with. Speaking of which — doesn’t your daughter go to private school?”

“Yes, she’s an honors student at Trust Me You Can’t Afford This.”

“But why would you send her there? Isn’t it expensive? And a long drive? There’s a public school right down the street from you, right?”

“Sure, but it’s not very good. This way she’ll have a much better chance at getting into a good college.”

“So? She’d probably get into college somewhere, if she really wanted to. You’re not legally required to pay all that money and send her to private school. Why do it?”

“Because I want to offer her the best education she can get. I want her to have job opportunities.”

“Oh — you want her to get a good job so she can support you.”

“No, of course not! I just want her to be happy and have a good life!”

“But you don’t think I want that for my child. You think that to me, being a parent means doing only what I absolutely have to — what I’m legally required to do, and nothing more. Is that what you think about the rest of my child’s life? Do you think I use a calorie counter and just give him the minimum daily sustenance I can get away with? Or do you think it’s possible that maybe, just maybe, I’m exactly like you? Maybe I take care of my kid because I love him and I want him to be happy? No, of course not. That’s crazy talk. I mean, why would I homeschool my kid if I loved him that much?”

Of course I’ll never have that conversation. But a lot of it will be going through my head now every time I get that particular batch of questions — which, since I’m a bit of a local ambassador for homeschooling, happens often.

If you’re one of the people doing this kind of asking, and you notice that the person you’re talking to is clenching her teeth just a bit, think about the kind of self-control she’s showing. You’re accusing her right to her face of being someone who only takes good care of her child because she’s afraid she’ll be sent to prison otherwise. And not only is she not screaming, or storming off, or telling you you’ve got some nerve — she’s answering your questions. Politely.

Which is probably more than you’d do if she turned the tables and asked you why the hospital let you take your newborn baby home without attaching some kind of monitor to it to make sure you weren’t starving it or beating it or something. You probably wouldn’t be too worried about allaying her fears and setting her mind at rest and assuring her that, no, you’re not abusive at all, really. You’d probably have some choice words to say to someone who accused you of being that sort of parent.

Think about that.

The kind of stuff that almost happens to me.

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

So my son’s been sick for a week. Not in that “this cold just won’t go away” way we all know and hate. No, he’s had a creepy week-long fever. You know how you’re not supposed to be able to run a fever early in the morning? He was starting out every day at over 100 degrees. And he’s one of those people who tends toward cool — his normal temp is in the low 97s. And he’s 14 years old, as opposed to, say, 14 months. So this was bad.

Plus he’s one of those people who never get sick. Frankly, I was kind of relieved when he finally got the flu at the age of four. I was starting to wonder if we were going to have to get him Damien-tested or something.

Not only is he making up for lost time now — he’s making up for it during a whole week where he was supposed to be acting as junior counselor at a Lego day camp. (Of course there are Lego camps.)

The first week of this job, which sonny was in perfect health for, was from eight in the morning until one in the afternoon, and it’s about an hour’s drive away. So not a huge break for me.

But this week? He was going to be there all day. Like, from eight until five.

And he loves it. So I wouldn’t have to feel guilty at having some huge unprecedented time to myself.

I’m a homeschooler, and we don’t run around talking about how much we hate being anywhere near our kids. I’ve never understood that attitude — “Oh, no! My kids are home from school today! DEAR GOD IN HEAVEN, SAVE ME FROM THIS MISERY!” I mean, I understand not wanting to spend every minute with your children. But when that turns into not wanting to spend any minute with them? That’s when I have to wonder who you were expecting to marry and what went wrong. Because clearly you think of children as something you produce in order to provide an heir to the throne or an extra target for those pesky paparazzi.

But, homeschooler or not, I am a loner. And a big old introvert. I crave time to myself — not for the sake of being away from my child, but for the sake of being away from everyone.

And even if I hated the idea of my son being gone for so long every day — and part of me does, it’s weird, we’ve never been apart so long for so many days in a row — I’d have to feel sad for his sake that he was missing out on something he really enjoys. Not to mention his first job. And missing out because he’s sick and feverish every day and just not getting any better.

So it’s been a shite week.

Several days into it, I realized that I hadn’t been outside at all except to go downstairs to our apartment complex’s laundry room. Which so does not count.

I do love being at home. But there’s a difference between deciding not to go out and not being allowed to go out.

So this morning, my husband took sonny to the doctor. My husband has an outside job, so having him take time off work to run this errand may sound weird. It sounds less weird when I explain that my husband insisted I needed some sanity time, and this was the only way I could get it. And it sounds way less weird when I explain that one of us hates our insurance plan with the dark fury of a thousand burnt-out stars (oh, just go with it) and tends to glare at representatives of that HMO. So in the interest of peace, he took our son in to get an X-ray and what turned out to be a diagnosis of pneumonia.

I went for a guilt-ridden run while they were gone. I jogged all the way down to the ocean and added a few pieces to my drift-glass collection. One of them was orange and had interesting marks on it, and I realized that it must have come from one of those reflective triangles they put on bicycles to lull their riders into a fatally false sense of security at night. I was waiting for somebody to yell, “YOU SHOULDN’T TAKE SHELLS! THEY’RE PART OF THE ECOSYSTEM!” And then I could wave my pieces of sea-smoothed glass and yell back, “GOSH, I WONDER WHAT LIVED IN THIS SHELL!” and then maybe add something clever about not throwing stones around all this glass, except I couldn’t think of how to phrase it. But nobody said anything. So I brought my glass home and watched about four minutes of “True Blood” — something else I’ve been deprived of now that my son’s in full-time residence — until the guys got home and told me all the gory details of the doctor visit.

By now it was so late that my husband decided not to bother even trying to go to work. So he ran a bunch of errands, because we were out of pretty much everything, because did I mention I’ve been trapped inside?

Here’s what I did while he was gone.

I took the lizards — Mr. Big and Miss Elizardbeth Bennett — for walkies eight million times, because it was super-humid out and that makes them go crazy if they have to stay in their tanks. These lizards are not large enough to roam around our apartment all by themselves. They’re like toddlers: you have to watch them every second or they’ll eat something totally inappropriate, or hurt themselves, or relieve themselves under the CD rack. (Okay, they’re not exactly like toddlers.)

I called my son’s music school and left a message canceling his violin lesson. Which I may as well not have even bothered doing, because they called the very next morning at lesson time demanding to know where he was.

I wrote up a master list of dinner ideas that won’t kill anybody or make anybody cry, which is harder than it sounds considering my husbands many food allergies and my son’s vegetarianism (which I will most definitely kvetch about here at some point).

I had the following conversation with my bed-ridden son:

“Mommy, could you please make me some lunch?”

“Sure. What do you want?”

“Do we have any leftover soup?”

“No.”

“Soup and bread would be great.”

I had a huge argument with my son about how I’d pronounced the word “no.” I insisted that I’d been straightforwardly sincere, while he held the position that I’d obviously been using an “I’m saying no when I really mean yes” tone of voice.

I considered the feasibility of nannycamming our entire apartment, so that instead of having this kind of argument six thousand times a week, I could just post the tape on YouTube and ask unbiased viewers to submit opinions as to who was right.

I took a shower several hours after that long smelly morning run.

I reminded myself not to shave my pits until I buy new razor blades.

I gave the tub a quick scrub and tried not to think about how long it had been since the bathroom had been given an honest-and-for-true deep-down cleaning.

I pondered what, if anything, was the difference between wanting the bathroom clean and wanting to clean the bathroom. A feminist philosopher I used to read at the feminist bookstore I used to work at insisted that women should never, ever clean anything unless they genuinely felt like cleaning. So now instead of just feeling guilty when our place falls to rack and ruin, I also feel guilty when I try to clear away the worst of the damage.

I played several billion games of Uno with my son. This was his idea and was supposed to distract him from how lousy he felt. Instead, he still felt lousy, plus he was furious because I relentlessly won hand after hand of what is essentially a game of chance.

Here’s what I didn’t do while my husband was running errands:

Anything fun.

Anything cool.

Anything glamorous.

Anything particularly productive.

Anything just for the heck of it.

Anything at all professional.

Anything chocolate-related.

Eventually, my husband came home, looking quite cheerful.

“Guess what?”

Oh, goody.

We live in Santa Monica. We moved here waaay back when you came to Santa Monica because you were broke, not in order to become so.

My husband had gone to the great big Whole Foods on Wilshire Boulevard, and while he was there…

“I saw Thor!”

Or at least Chris Hemsworth, the actor who plays Thor.

Also, my husband saw Chris Hemsworth’s new baby.

Now, here’s the thing.

I like the movie Thor, and I worship at the altar of The Avengers, but I find Chris Hemsworth disturbingly muscular. Well, he’s supposed to be, right? He’s a freakin’ god.

When my female friends are drooling over pictures of guys from movies or the “Game of Thrones” series, I have often said, “You know, there’s such a thing as too many abs.”

If I absolutely had to pick a guy from Thor on whom to have a crush, I would go with the guy who played Loki. Or — more realistically at my age and level of babeitude — Anthony Hopkins.

I’m weird, is what I’m saying.

So this Thor-related incident didn’t hit me quite the same way it would another red-blooded straight woman.

But there was something fundamentally wrong with my husband running into a big, huge movie star while I was stuck at home shuffling the Uno deck.

Because — well, let’s review.

High point of my husband’s day: “Look! The star of several recent movies! And his adorable offspring!”

High point of my day: “Look! Something shiny!”

Plus, my husband is embarrassingly heterosexual. This was totally wasted on him. He was more excited about seeing Thor’s baby. “It was so cute!” Oh, please. Like there are any non-cute babies out there. Babies are cute by definition.

And he talked to him. My husband talked to Thor, I mean. He complimented his baby. And Hemsworth graciously accepted said compliment. With his own actual voice. And even if you’re me, you have to admit that Chris Hemsworth’s voice is top-ten material.

Of course, for me to know that, I’d have to haul out a DVD or schlep my sorry self down to a movie theater. My husband can rely on his in-person MEMORIES.

So, yeah — I get to be bitter.

And the next time my sweet sonny gets sick, I’M running all the errands, and Daddy can take over the creaming-our-child-at-Uno duties. Because that’s equality. Or something.

She’s not just bitter — she’s BAD

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

I never thought of editing a magazine as the kind of job that had a guilt trip built right into it. Then I started Secular Homeschooling, and every day that I wasn’t the world’s freakin’ perfect homeschooler felt like a lie I was telling the whole damned world.

“How can you sit there giving advice to homeschooling parents?” my inner voice would scream as I tried to type up an innocent little article on fun activities for the younger set. “You yelled at your kid today! And then you went and reread that Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle book and daydreamed about being one of the moms in one of those stories! Those moms who got to clean nice empty houses and had plenty of time to bake and call their friends on the phone just because they felt like it!”

Of course, even if my kid went to public school, I wouldn’t have a life like that. I’d be scrounging around doing whatever paid employment I could find. I wouldn’t want to be a just-plain homemaker anyway. It would drive me nuts.

But when I have to admit publicly that my life is now literally driving me nuts, it’s nice to have one less source of guilt. I may be a mess, but at least I don’t have a job title that implies I’m managing to “have it all.”

I am, as the lovely Brits would say, not coping.

I am crying a lot.

I am screaming a great deal.

I threw a laundry basket hard enough to break it just yesterday.

And it’s all because I can’t stop being a feminist.

A feminist by my own pared-down, nothing-but-the-basics definition: a woman who insists on thinking of herself as a human being.

It’s not about homeschooling. It’s about parenting.

I am not a good parent.

Specifically, I am not a good mother.

I am a mother like Edna Pontellier, the main character of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.

I, like Edna, am not willing to be a “mother-woman” and volunteer my own needs and identity to be subsumed by those of my child.

I’d give my life — my physical existence — to save my son’s in a minute. That’s a given.

But I’m not willing to give up half my life on a daily basis. I’m not willing to be only physically alive for his sake. And that’s what it feels like lately.

He needs exercise, so I rearrange my schedule to get him to the park or out on a walk every day. We live in the city and don’t have a yard, so exercise is by appointment, as it were.

I need exercise, so if I can fit it in around everything else that needs doing around here, I can get it.

His mind needs stimulation and education, so I spend hours online and in the library doing research, and more hours writing up classes and figuring out how to help him to reach his goal of becoming an engineer.

My mind needs stimulation and education, so if I can fit it in around the edges of his life, I can get it.

Ditto for my goal of becoming a published novelist.

If a life were nothing more than a physical existence, there would have been no conflict over Terri Schiavo.

If I could shove aside my own needs for the next four years or so, they wouldn’t be needs.

My son needs to be homeschooled. Our local public high school is a terror and he can’t go there. We can’t afford a private school. And anyway, his going to school wouldn’t be less stressful — it would just be a different kind of stress. I don’t want that any more than he does.

But something has to give around here, and I’m trying to figure out what it is.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

I wrote that and then I put this essay aside. I came back to it a couple of weeks later with no answers.

Things are, if anything, worse than ever.

The building I on-site manage has gone completely haywire, and I’m needed a lot — but I’m not doing a whole lot. I’m just locking and unlocking doors, wrangling plumbers and drywallers, and never knowing exactly when I’ll be needed to do more of the same. It starts in the morning and doesn’t end until after six or seven at night. So I can’t do anything uninterruptible, like work out or write anything that needs actual brain power.

My husband got a cold and then a viral lung infection and then a bacterial lung infection. He’s allergic to a lot of medication that would help, and his diabetes makes it impossible for him to take other medication that would help. He’ll be home from work for several more days at least. He’s been feverish at night, and we have to take him to the doctor if it gets higher than a certain temperature so we have to keep monitoring it. He also has to take his medication every six hours. We’re not sleeping a lot.

A friend of mine whose child I teach science wants me to teach three classes this week instead of the usual one, because that works better for their schedule. I had a unit worked out based on the dates we’d already agreed on, but now her daughter is angry about having to have “school” all the way through June when her friends get to start summer vacation earlier. These science classes aren’t from a boxed curriculum. They involve research and writing and scrambling for materials and experiments and online resources. I just called to leave a message that between the building and my husband’s illness, we have too much going on for me to teach tomorrow and I understand if she can’t reschedule — if that’s the case, we’ll see her next fall.

I’m feeling guilty because technically, I could physically stay up late, write the class, get up early, and teach the class. Provided I shove all my needs around the edges of other people’s lives the way I said I needed to stop doing, I could do that.

How dare I not do everything everyone asks me if it’s physically possible for me to do so.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

My son came into my room last week, while I was typing out the first part of this essay. Without asking what I was doing or saying “Excuse me,” he showed me something funny on Facebook. I told him I was working. He went out to the main room. A minute later, he called that our pet lizards were going nuts in their tanks and needed walkies, and as I knew, he couldn’t wrangle them both at once.

I helped him. Then I told him I needed to ask him a few questions.

Did he know that my writing was work? Not just in the sense that it’s difficult; but in the sense that, for example, a book manuscript I sold several years ago (and then collected a kill fee on) paid for his piano? And the magazine I used to write for and publish had purchased a much-needed new computer, among other things? Even the short stories and articles that were my first sales had paid actual checks. My blog postings are a message to the world that I’m still working, and a way of keeping my voice out there while I work to sell my first full-length fiction manuscript.

If it was hard to do and it made money or had the potential to make money, was my writing work?

He agreed that it was.

Very well. Let’s say that today, when the great lizard frenzy occurred, I’d been out on an errand and his father had been working at home, tip-tapping away at his computer with work he’d brought home from his office. Would my son have called his father for help with walkies?

My son looked crestfallen.

“No,” he said with admirable honesty.

So: in spite of what he said about agreeing that my work was work, didn’t his actions say something else?

“Yes.”

Now: let’s say that instead of typing, I’d been cleaning the back bedroom when the lizards went berserk. Say I was up on the mini-step ladder dusting the stupid blinds. (I hate dusting blinds.) Would he have called me for help reptile-wrangling, or managed it somehow himself.

“I honestly don’t know,” he said.

I believed him. “So office work is 100% real ‘work,’” I said. “Housework is about halfway there. And writing isn’t work at all.”

His face had been crumpling steadily since the beginning of this Socratic dialogue. “I get it,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

He did get it.

It hasn’t helped much.

All morning I have been telling him that it is incredibly important to me that I finish a piece of writing — a specific blog posting about a specific aspect of feminist politics that is very important to me and is very difficult to write well about. All morning, I’ve been sitting at the computer tip-tapping away at said essay. I have made no secret of this.

The plumbers and drywallers can’t help interrupting me. My son can. And won’t.

Some of them are charming interruptions. I’m glad he’s glad I managed to bake cake today. (I’m glad, too.) And it’s wonderful that he’s 14 years old and still wants to give me a gentle hug or stroke my hair.

But the sweetest gesture in the world is scream-worthy if his timing remains so relentlessly off.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

Coming back to this essay once again after several weeks away. Again, no easy answers. No answers at all, really. But I’m not willing to throw away all this writing and all the hurt behind it just because I can’t think of a neat, wrap-it-up ending.

All things considered, I guess trailing off and staggering on is the only way to go.