A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Friday, December 20, 2013


Last year (as those of you who have been tolerating me for an extended period of time may recall) I felt that my annual holiday letter needed a fresh, untrammeled narrative form.  After giving the issue some deep literary thought, I penned the resultant work as a “Choose Your Own Adventure”. 
Having tapped that genre for all it was worth (about $1.49), this year I decided to switch things up again.  Thus, for 2013 In Review, we’re going with “epic poem”.
Hey!  Wait!  Where are you going? 
According to Wikipedia, the ten main characteristics of an epic are as follows:
1.       Begins in medias res.
2.       Features a vast setting, covering many nations, the world, or the universe. (Does a single passing reference to the Hubble Space Telescope count?).
3.       Begins with an invocation to a muse.
4.       Begins with a statement of the theme.
5.       Includes the use of epithets (e.g.“Foul Incubus”, “Lord of Javascript”, “He of the Monstrous Nether Regions”, etc.).
6.       Contains long lists, called an epic catalogue.
7.       Features long and formal speeches (not included in the CliffsNotes).
8.       Shows divine intervention in human affairs. (Blame Apollo; it’s totally his fault).
9.       Features heroes that embody the values of the civilization. (Would that be rampant consumerism, or adulation of vacuous celebrities?).
10.   Often features the tragic hero's descent into the underworld or hell.
Since all these requirements overlap nicely with what one ought to find in a holiday letter – I already get a lot of epic catalogues in the mail at this time of year -- I felt I was on the right track. However, my Muse was lacking.  Which classic epics could I call upon for inspiration? 
The Odyssey has some good elements to work with, offering verisimilitude in the form of an impossibly ancient dog – but the older of our own canines is characterized more by crotchetiness than enduring faithfulness.  And, while I undoubtedly feel some affinity for Polyphemus based on our shared monocularity, he’s not precisely the main character in Homer’s classic.  In fact, he comes off rather badly, what with his rude habit of eating his guests and all. 
What about the tale of Gilgamesh (king of Uruk) and his good buddy Enkidu (a wild man created by the gods to be Gilgamesh’s peer, and to distract him from oppressing the people of Uruk)?  That one works really well, inasmuch as my life is indeed a thinly veiled gay male love story full of odd power dynamics and endless drama.  (Lemme tell you, my “friend” and I often “journey to the Cedar Mountain” to “defeat Humbaba, its monstrous guardian.”)  In truth, the Epic of Gilgamesh is an awesome tale, and I do relate to all the perilous journeys and bonds of love and whatnot, but the ending is just too heart-breakingly Brokeback Mountain for me to embrace it entirely.
The Faerie Queen?  Oh., good lord, no.  And while Beowulf offers some gripping stanzas (“Hrothgar Moralizes”: XXVI; “Reminiscences (continued)”: XXXV), I find that once I’ve killed a terrible beast feared throughout the land, I hardly ever want to have to go back after all the feasting and kill its mother.
Ultimately, I realized I would have to, as they say, “draw upon a broad range of literary references”.  As for the iambic pentameter and ABAB rhyme scheme, those are most likely merely a side-effect of translation of my life from the original Mesopotamian. 
Ready?  Ready.

In which we find the Protagonist in media res in the underworld, which, let’s face it, is more of a Zamhareer, really, because it’s just stupidly dark and cold.

O Muse -- where are you, gods-forsaken Sun?
Help craft this tale of travels far and near,
Of petty strife, and battles lost and won,
And random crap that happened this past year.

For hark!  Protag’nist’s foot with beads impaled,
She finds no solace in the handiwork
Of two Young Acolytes. Her sanity assailed,
Her epic quest is Not To Be A Jerk.

In which Our Heroes travel to a land of mighty chasms

Twelve full-moons past, cold winter gripped their hearts
When forth Protag’nist went with Kinfolk Band,
And thus this tale of epic rambling starts
With journey to a fabled Canyon (Grand).

Chance strangers met did oftimes deem them fools
For braving precipice and frosty tent.
Small Hikers, fearless, tamed Voracious Mules
By sharing Tasty Grass where’er they went.

In which the Protagonist’s spouse does a prodigiously magnificent amount of snow biking while the Protagonist limits herself to only a slightly unreasonable amount

When icy dark portended slothful doom
Protag’nist’s Stalwart Comrade groomed his steed
By dripping chain-oil in the living-room
(The grease goes nicely with those star-shaped beads…)

He harkened hence, with Gu and Gummi Worms;
“Iditarod” the trail was named, by Lords of Ice.
Protag’nist praised his deeds, yet still confirms:
For her, a hundred-miler will suffice.

In which the Young Acolytes try to spell “elephant”, earn actual money, and produce lumpy clay objects

With fearlessness of duct tape, wood, and yarn
The Daughters of the Clan did hone their minds
Reading heavy tomes (“Pa built a barn!”)
And crafting Things of many useless kinds.

O Second Grade!  O wondrous new hijinks!
Your fourteen questions asked all in a row,
Your knock-knock jokes too subtle for a Sphinx,
And troweling sled-dog poop to make some dough.

In which Our Heroes travel to a land of wind, ice, geysers, and adorable equines

Forth once more, as fickle summer waned,
Protag’nist went with all her tribe, plus one --
The Fearsome Tom -- to country where it rained
And blew, but yet was Mighty Fun.

By bicycle the Ped’ling Pentad went
From geyser’s plume to coast to water chute.
Yea! Iceland could not slay the Mighty Tent!
And lo! The ponies were so very cute!

In which the Protagonist produces epic catalogues and formal speeches -- but probably not enough

Though online comments presaged flying fruit,
Protag’nist gave her talks on climate change,
And found the crowds remarkably astute.
The weather -- not the public -- was deranged.

Reports were written (Hark!  The passive tense!)
For use as ballast, steps, or booster seats.
Protag’nist strove to muster common sense,
Yet failed in sundry academic feats.

In which Our Heroes travel to many other lands replete with mud, snow, hot water, and eight-headed monsters

Their journeys not complete, Young Acolytes
Soon found among their youthful hardy peers
Brave Warrior Kids possessing of a might
Beyond the reach of stature or of years.

Thus reinforced, the Robust Group assailed
Divers trails and hot springs most sublime,
Despite the Fearsome Mud such quests entailed.
So many Acolytes, so little time.

In which the Fair Reader returns to the underworld, where several deities may be necessary to vanquish the cold and darkness and general squabbling

At last, bone-weary, so Protag’nist fell
Through storm of paper-snowflake snipped-up chaff
To sniping, griping, tinsel-scattered hell.
The Sirens coaxed, “Eat gingerbread, and laugh.”

O Sun -- Apollo, Helios, Sol, or Ra --
Invoke yourself with this full-spectrum light!
Drive back the Scrooge-like Grinchiness of “Bah,”
And let us hear the sleighbells in the night!

“Minerva raised her voice aloud, and made everyone pause… 'Cease this dreadful war, and settle the matter at once without further bloodshed.’  …Then Minerva assumed the form and voice of Mentor, and presently made a covenant of peace between the two contending parties”
The Oddyssey, Book XXIV (Homer, 800BCE)

Peace on Earth, a happy Saturnalia to all, and to all a good night.

[You’ll be glad to know that my goal for 2014 is to live the entire year in the form of a single haiku.]

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Sex. Nudity. Algae hats.

[Note: in my last blog post, I embarked on a long and meandering examination of America’s Mainstream Morals – as exemplified by the media in general, and by the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) film rating system in particular.   Alas, I spent so much time ruminating on the subjects of swearing and violence that I left no time and space for nudity and sex.  I’m sure you’ll be glad to know that I am ready to remedy that now.  Warning: at this juncture, certain individuals may wish to make a quick escape, lest I never, ever get invited to family gatherings ever again.  Here, try this: http://emergency-kittens.tumblr.com/]

“Hey, wait for me!” 
But even after ten miles of hiking, there was no curbing the self-potentiated critical-mass-energy of six children.  I was still standing on the damp planking around the wooden hot tub, struggling to undo the laces on my muddy hiking boots, by the time all half-dozen kids had morphed into a squeaking, giggling, toe-dipping, splashing tangle of buck-naked happiness. 
“Hesitation” and “modesty” did not appear to have registered on anyone’s radar.
Before our four-family trip to remote Tolovana Hot Springs this fall, I – the fearless Trip Organizer -- sent out a few logistical emails.  In them, I offered thoughts on the difficulty of the terrain, the unpredictability of the weather, and the delicious unhealthfulness of the food that Jay, the twins, and I would be sharing.  I also broached the topic of nudity. 
I was in favor of it.
Right.  So, when I sent that email, I was a bit anxious about coming across as the Hippie Parent with Wanton Moral Values.  Actually, I have a sneaking suspicion that, in fact, I am the Hippie Parent – with, well, shall we say “non-standard” moral values?   However, I don’t like making people uncomfortable.   I came out in favor of nudity at Tolovana for purely practical reasons: getting out of a hot tub in below-freezing conditions and walking several hundred yards back to a cabin is horrible, if one is wearing a sopping wet bathing suit.  Moreover, putting that wet suit back on a couple of hours later for a subsequent soak would be pure torture.  Really, regardless of which friends and family one is sharing Tolovana with – and how much clothing one might normally wear in the company of this particular assortment of adults and kids -- the only comfortable attire under these conditions is a birthday suit and a shrug.
The MPAA – and most of Mainstream America, it seems -- would not agree.
Where does America stand on nudity?  Well, as far as I can tell, the answer is “cowering behind the shower door, with a bathrobe on.” Even single-sex bareness in pool locker rooms appears to stress out my countrywomen.  Everyone clings to towels, and dresses in a hurry.  Strangers do not chat, smile, or even make eye contact.  At all our local pools, kids are – by strictly posted Borough-wide policy-- not allowed into the locker room with their opposite-gender parents if they are over the age of four.  Okay, Fairbanks, we have carefully followed your rules – but anyone who has witnessed the results of a lone five-year-old attempting to successfully juggle the intricacies of lockers, towels, dirty clothes, wet floors, clean clothes, peeing, showering, shampoo, goggles, and little plastic swim tokens can see that there may be a few kinks in the system.  Last time Jay took his daughters swimming, they did pretty well -- but Lizzy emerged poolside with her bathing suit on backwards.  Luckily, no one fainted at the resulting glimpse of near-invisible little-girl nipples.
In contrast, in Iceland, where last summer we visited lots of hot tubs – and thus lots of locker rooms – towels seemed to be used for drying rather than for hiding.  In one such small-town venue, the kids and I had a lengthy unclothed discussion with a total stranger about her horse-breeding business. The children were way too interested in the chit-chat to focus on donning any sort of apparel.  Icelandic ponies!
Indeed, in most of Europe, things are a bit more… laissez faire.  I remember going to France when I was 13 and my sister was 16.  We were startled to find that there were topless women not only on all the beaches, but also hiking around in the Alps, blithely asking directions of gobsmacked American teenagers who spoke laughable French. (“Pardonnez-moi, mais vous me montrez vos seins.”)
Even the Brits, whom we Americans like to portray as stuffy as all get-out, are more relaxed in this regard.  My (English) mother has described an incident that occurred shortly after she first moved to the U.S. in 1970, with her American husband and child and her shiny new green card.  The weather was hot, so she let my sister play in a kiddie pool on the lawn.  Almost immediately, a neighbor appeared – scandalized.  Heavens, this would never do!  Little Sarah should be put into a bathing suit immediately! 
My sister was one year old at the time.  Or maybe she had just turned two?  In either case, she was a baby.  Splashing innocently in the water.  But… naked. 
I won’t even go into the awkwardness I managed to create amongst my fellow Americans, seven years ago, by nursing twins in public.  I tried not to let it all hang out, but there were two of them.  Do you know how hard it is to juggle a pair of squirming, hungry, crying, babies while making your shirt and/or an assortment of stifling, awkward blankets into a Magical Chamber of Concealment?  Ok, let’s up the ante:  now you have to do this on an airplane.  Yeah. I’m so sorry, America.  I have breasts.
If Americans are uptight about milk-greedy infants and bare-butted babies, they are even more anxious about the mere idea of naked adults, particularly in the presence of kids.  This is super-duper-taboo in real life, on TV, anywhere.  Reflecting these mores, the MPAA isn’t taking any risks with naughty bits. 
As I pointed out in my previous post (Swearing!  Violence!), I feel that MPAA ratings – and social rules in general – would make the most sense to me if there were a clear correlation between what we protect kids from, and things that might actually frighten, corrupt, or psychologically scar them.  Does banning all nudity fit the bill?
Open-water sky.  Hot, bubbly, wonderfully unchlorinated water.  Splash, splash, splash.  Little feet kicking me.  Little bottoms turning pink.  Giggle.  Giggle.  Splash.  One small person decided my lap was a comfy place to sit down, lean back, relax, and enjoy the Tolovana experience.  She wasn’t my own child, but, whatever. 
I don’t know about your children, but my kids are pretty seriously untraumatized by nakedness.  I’m not talking about anything sexual here.  I’m talking about a bunch of grownups chatting in a remote hot springs, or me wandering around the house trying to figure out where I put my clean clothes, or Jay slipping into his bike shorts in the living room. I can’t really begin to describe to what degree the kids Do Not Care.  Unless, of course, Daddy is wearing his Spiderman boxers, because – AWESOME SPIDERMAN UNDIES!
The MPAA, however, isn’t too into debating the finer points.  Full frontal nudity-- regardless of whether it’s in the context of an orgy with the entire Norwegian Olympic ping pong team or a bath with a rubber ducky -- guarantees an R.  For example, A Room with a View, the 1985 adaptation of E.M. Forster’s classic Edwardian-era drama, won three academy awards.  It also (horrors) includes a scene in which men are swimming in the nude – which, of course, is entirely historically accurate.  Holy testicles, Batman! No one under 17 admitted without a grownup!
Oh, good lord, America.  My kids are seven.  They are okay with human bodies.  They may get all shy about their own – and those of everyone else on the planet – when they go through puberty, but I’m hoping that they don’t start hating human bodies at that stage – theirs, or anyone else’s.  I’m hoping that if they never learn that grownup bodies are intensely awful and shameful, the transition to actually having one might be slightly easier. 
In the meantime, is the mere existence of genitalia and breasts likely to haunt their psyches?  They already know that boys have penises.  They also have a handle on words like “urethra” and “labia” and “vas deferens” – but I’ll admit that might be just a side effect of having me, inveterate biologist, as a parent.  Still, don’t panic, America.  My parents took me to see A Room with a View.  I was 13.  I survived.
I could be wrong, but the subtext of American fears about nudity seems to be that nudity is always about sex – and, as an assumed-to-be-self-evident corollary, sex is bad.  Bad, bad, bad!  Movies can get slammed with restrictive ratings for “sexual content” at the drop of a hat.I’ll grant that sex is private, and sex is adult, but it’s not bad.  Or, okay, it can be bad, but let’s not be pessimists, shall we? 
What, exactly, constitutes inappropriate sexual content for young children?  For bigger kids?  For teenagers?  Once again, I’m pretty sure I’m the hippie outlier.  Once again, I worry that I’m likely to radically offend someone, or get banned from the PTA, or, estrange all my hiking buddies, or, I dunno, something.
Not that I don’t have boundaries about this.  I definitely don’t want my children to watch an explicit rape scene – or a non-explicit one, for that matter.  I don’t want them to see women depicted as objects to be used in a degrading or coercive manner.  To be fair, I don’t want them to see men depicted as sexual objects to be summarily used, either, although the idea is slightly more amusing.  (Did I say that?  Ignore that comment.)  But, given that they are going to be introduced to ideas about sex at some point, I’d rather plant a few benign or positive ideas than leave the whole mysterious subject up to random chance, playground snickering, and internet wanderings.
And, really, sexual references are everywhere.  Everywhere!  For example, the other day, the kids came home from school singing a new holiday song they’d learned in music class.  “Silent night, holy night…”  I listened, both pleased by the fact that they could (sort of) manage to hit the correct notes of this lovely melody, and unnerved that a deeply religious song was being taught in the public school system.  Where I grew up, a good twenty percent of the kids celebrated Hanukkah, and definitely didn’t sing songs about holy infants.  Round yon virgin mother and child…  At this point, one or both kids lost either the thread of the tune, or the meaning of the words, or both.  They stopped.  “What’s a virgin?” asked Molly.
“It’s someone who has never had sex,” I told her. 
Both kids stared at me for a moment.  Then they laughed.  “That’s a weird song,” said Molly. 
My seven-year-olds know what “having sex” means.  They know because I answer all the questions they ask me, as clearly and carefully as I can, using non-scary words that I think they’ll understand.  If they keep asking intelligent questions, I keep answering.  They’ve asked whether people have to be married to have babies, and how (precisely) the sperm and egg get together, and whether there will be any more babies in our family -- and why not?  Why not, Mommy?  Why not?  (I love you sweetie.  I love answering your eight thousand questions.  But we are most definitely not having any more babies…)   
The kids wanted to know how the children of our same-sex-couple friends were created (sorry, you guys, for making you Educational Examples).  Given the apparent complexity and weirdness of the baby-making process, they also asked how men and women can possibly have children by mistake – something they’d already overheard as a possibility. Once they had absorbed the mind-boggling fact that adult couples take part in this utterly odd behavior not just to procreate, but for entertainment, they wanted to know how these strange sex-having grownups can prevent themselves from having unwanted babies.   They also wanted to know why our dogs and cats won’t have any puppies and kittens.  This led to what is probably my favorite-ever kid-question to date: “Mommy, what part of Daddy did they cut off so that you won’t have any more babies?” 
And now, quite reasonably, my second-graders wanted to know why they were singing a song about a virgin mother. I tried to (sensitively, carefully) explain a bit about Christian beliefs, and how they relate to the Christmas story and the birth of Jesus (with whom the kids are acquainted as a respected historical figure and peacemaker, rather than as a deity).  I’m not a Christian, but I did my best.  I threw in some extra words about diversity of beliefs and mutual respect, just in case.  Gosh, I love parenting!  Is this why so much eggnog is sold in December?
Honestly, I’m not sure how other parents manage to make such a Great Big Secret out of sex, without either outright lying (Storks!  So damned many storks!) or turning sex into a subject so taboo that it takes on a larger-than-life fascination.  For any kid with one whit of curiosity, there are a thousand questions to ask, and all kinds of information (and, alas, blatant misinformation) to pick up here and there.  Other animals have sex. Often loudly and visibly.  Heck, even plants do, in their various wind-and-insect assisted ways.  I recall the day when I picked up the kids, then five, from preschool.  They excitedly informed me that they and their friend Josie had witnessed two ladybugs on top of one another.  SO COOL!  “We told all the little kids [that is, the less worldly 3-and 4-year-olds] what they were doing,” the three darling cherubs informed me proudly.  Um, good job, girls.
I might not be so defensive about America’s desire to protect kids from “sexual content” if our country didn’t seem to be so wildly hypocritical on the subject.  Weirdly, although nudity is anathema to the MPAA and everyone else, our culture seems pretty gung-ho about scanty attire, particularly if it emphasizes precisely those body-parts that we’re supposedly so concerned about covering.  The message here seems to be that the human body is nasty, naughty, secret, and highly dangerous to children, but at the same time an alluring commodity that girls have, and boys want.
It’s this double standard that really makes me bug-eyed with righteous wrath.  Girls are taught – via TV ads, music, magazines, movies, available clothing selections and even little-kid plastic toys -- that they ought to be primping for boys, and selling themselves as sexy objects.  Math is hard; try making your eyelashes look more lustrous instead!  But the contradictory messages come through loud and clear, too: women are not supposed to seek out or enjoy sex, because that’s slutty and unfeminine.  If you’re female, your sexuality is something to be touted, exploited, feared, and controlled.  Daddies, lock up your girls, and get out your guns!  Yes, people have made statements of this ilk to Jay, with regard to his two mud-stained, scabby-kneed, nose-picking second graders.  Luckily, as far as I know, he has not started stocking up ammo.
Don’t get me wrong; I do know that there is Bad Stuff out there, from which kids deserve and warrant protection.  Moreover, I don’t want the twins to jump into the hanky-panky arena five years from now.  However, as well as protecting them, I want to teach them to protect themselves, and stand up for themselves, and make their own choices, and live life with joy and enthusiasm in all realms.  I want them to know what the heck sex is (emotionally complex, varied in its expression, not without physical hazards, potentially wonderful, but also potentially heart-breaking), and what it isn’t (tidy, perfect, sinful, shameful, a commodity to be bartered).  If we teach kids that Sex is Bad, they’ll eventually figure out that we’ve been lying to them – because, duh, sex (at the right time, with the right person) is… Not Bad.  And then, what will they believe? Based on that logic, I’m trying to steer clear of the strategy of “keeping kids in the dark for as long as possible, then awkwardly lecturing when they’ve already been wallowing in misinformation for years.”
I do worry about the effects that “sexual content” – from every image and message that bombards their senses -- will ultimately have on my daughters’ self-images.  But I’m not worrying about the same stuff that the MPAA is worrying about.  I’m more worried about sexism than I am about sex.  If the kids watch a movie in which they see the bare shoulders of two grownups who are happily kissing and snuggling under the covers, I don’t think they’ll have nightmares.  When we watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I was a bit concerned that the violence would scare them (luckily, it seems they are now old enough to discern what is farcical); I was not at all worried that the lovely young ladies of Castle Anthrax would corrupt or terrify them.  As Sir Galahad’s companions saved him from his dire fate amongst all those lonely, lonely maidens, Molly noted, “You know, I don’t think he really needed rescuing.” 
The lines are being drawn – but they are being drawn without clear attention to context.  And, in my opinion, with regard to sexual behavior, context is everything.  (Well, almost everything.  Use your imaginations, people.)
Context!  Context! As I said in my last blog post, teaching kids about context is a subtle and complicated business, but luckily, children are surprisingly subtle and complicated beings.  At age seven, I’m pretty sure my kids know that naked people are normal and innocuous in locker rooms, or at hot springs, or at home in our cabin -- but the twins would certainly be startled to see a naked person in the grocery store or the library, and I think a flasher would creep them out to exactly the degree that a flasher ought to creep them out. 
Splash.  Splash.  Giggle. 
I was, as I have said, a bit worried about the sensibilities of others with regard to Tolovana frolicking.  As such, we started out with strictly single-sex bathing.  Me.  Splash.  Shriek.  Gurgle.  Giggle.  “Look, I made a hat out of algae!  Do you want an algae hat, Nancy?  Here, let me make you one!” Six girls.  So. Many. Little. Bodies.  But after a while, children being children, they wanted to explore.  “Nancy, can we go down to the bottom hot tub?”
“Well… sure… but you know that there are other grownups down there, right?  I think Jay’s there, for example.”
“So?  We don’t care.  Can we go?”
“Yeah.  Yeah, sure.  Go ahead.”  Jay loves algae hats.
“Yay!”  Splash.  Splash.  Giggle. 

[Enough said.  If any in-laws are still reading at this point, I promise, my next blog post will be about my lifelong adoration of… math.]