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

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Parental Discretion Advised

“Oh, shit!” The young man by the coffee pot pulled back his hand from the errant blast of hot steam.  Then, out of the corner of his eye, he spotted me standing a few feet away… with a petite, blonde, wide-eyed little girl at my side.  In truth, Lizzy was far too focused on grabbing the free pepperoni pizza to pay any attention to grownup strangers, misbehaving coffeepots or, apparently, naughty words.  Nonetheless, the curly-haired college student immediately looked guilty.  “Oh… heck,” he self-edited, catching my eye and grinning sheepishly.
I appreciated this hapless, scalded guy’s slightly-too-late attempt at politeness – but in truth, I wasn’t seriously worried that his burnt-fingered scatological utterance would actually harm my kid.  Would other parents have been more offended?  Less?  As I wander through the maze of parenting, I find that I’m never quite sure where to draw the lines when it comes to buffering my children from Life.  Which aspects of human existence are Not Child Appropriate – and for what age of child, and in what context? 
There aren’t too many official rules as to what is ok for what age.  Thus, to some degree, we’re all winging it.  The rules that do exist often seem to be a contradictory hodge-podge in which some tidbits of common sense are mixed with peculiar oddments of Victorian prudery, paranoid over-generalization, prurient religious doctrine, and chasms of offhand neglect. 
There are so many aspects of human behavior that we don’t particularly want to encourage in our children: Violence.  Sex.  Profanity. Blackmail.  War.  Theft.  Drinking.  Smoking.  Bullying.  Flagrant nose-picking.  Fundamentally, I agree. I don’t want my twin seven-year-olds to take up any of these things as second-grade hobbies.  But the vehemence with which we hide or whitewash each of these behaviors (or fail to do so), and the clarity with which we explain (or fail to explain) why they are Not Okay Now or Not Okay Ever sometimes seem out of proportion with their deleterious effects.
The closest thing our country has to regularized norms may be the criteria by which movies are rated by the Motion Picture Association of America.  I find these guidelines peculiarly – and sometimes laughably -- useless.  They only serve to highlight my sense that where I would place buffers around my offspring differs wildly from where others would place them. 
More specifically, I’d argue that our culture is surprisingly and even disturbingly lax with regard to what level of violence and psychological trauma we think kids can deal with, and yet pretty darned uptight about (non-violent and non-sexualized) naughty words and naked bodies.  As for sex – well, we’re both ludicrously uptight AND frustratingly lax about the messages we send there.
[Wait, wait… Nancy is going to take on the subjects of profanity, nudity, violence and sex all in one blog post? 
Um, no.  I tried, actually.  But it got too long, and goodness knows, I wouldn’t want to bore you with page after page about the moral ramifications of hanky-panky and visible naughty bits.  Thus, I’m saving sex and nudity for another day.  Still, some of you might want to stop reading here.  Actually, some of you might want to stop reading a few paragraphs back, with the opener.  It started, if you recall, with “shit”.  Right.]
Still with me?  Your call.  I warned you.
Given that my kids inhabit the real world, rather than some kind of 1950’s mirror-universe full of roller-skating towheads and happy Golden Retrievers (but without the Cold War, the Stepford Wives, segregation, or McCarthyism), I’m pretty sure my kids have heard the basic Anglo-Saxon set of four-letter words.  I’m pretty sure that for the most part, they haven’t heard them from their parents – although I’ve never really thought through why Jay and I have been so circumspect.
A few days ago, Molly reached a highpoint of jigsaw puzzle frustration.  “What the!” she exclaimed.  Then she stopped.  I glanced at her -- and realized that she hadn’t cut herself off for fear of harming my tender sensibilities; she was simply unaware that any additional word might traditionally be part of this expression. 
Mommy and Daddy say, “What the!” a fair bit, it seems.  How very quaint, no?  Still, I’m sure the kids know the Real McCoy: that is, the words that refer, with neat conciseness, to feces, genitalia, copulation, or some combination of the above.  I’m sure Molly and Lizzy have at least heard all the words that – while they might technically mean the same thing as “penis” or “vulva” or “fornicate” or “anus” or even “superlatively” or “junk” or “emphatically” -- are VERY BAD WORDS.  Why are they bad?  Because we say so, that’s why.
When I was a kid, I knew those words, too.  My parents didn’t use them (much) – although I clearly recall my mother wandering into the kitchen, where my dad and I were playing Scrabble, and saying, “Who put that on the board?”  My dad explained, with no trace of remorse, “It was worth thirty-nine points!”  (When he played Scrabble with his nine-year-old daughter, he played to win.)  I rode the school bus, I played in public parks, and I wasn’t deaf. I knew ‘em.   Still, I was a good, nerdy little child.  By about fourth or fifth grade, I was so entrenched in my Good Kid reputation that the following incident occurred.
We were all out on the playground playing some wholesome game – tag, perhaps – boys and girls together.  Someone let loose a mild epithet.  Someone else remarked – I’m not sure why – that they had never heard Nancy say a bad word.  Never!
Suddenly, with that Lord of the Flies creepiness that can overcome packs of kids, they were all on me.  “Have you ever said a bad word?” “Come on, say a curse-word.  Just one.”  “Say one curse.  Do it!”  They surrounded me like jackals.  In truth, I don’t think any of them meant to be threatening or mean.  I wasn’t usually picked on, and these were nice kids.  They were just fascinated, curious, and super-charged by their own semi-naughtiness.  They circled.  They cajoled.  They waited. 
I think that all they wanted was for me to meekly whisper “crap” or “shit” or maybe even “hell”.  But my usually mild, dorky, nine-year-old psyche completely and unexpectedly boiled over.  I was mad.  I was furious.  In short, I lost it.  I screamed.  At the top of my lungs.  And what I screamed was, “FUCK YOOOOOOU!” 
I didn’t regret it.  It felt fantastic.  It cowed the herd.  It earned some respect.  And, moreover, it didn’t set me off on a potty-mouthed life of ill-repute and crack-smoking.  I went right back to being a nerdy kid who didn’t swear and liked to hang out with the Math Club.  It was all about context. 
The Motion Picture Association of America has clear rules about swearing -- but context isn’t part of them.  “G rated films usually can have language beyond polite (i.e. "heck", "rats", "dang", "darn", and "fart"), but never with profanity. PG rated films may have mild profanity (i.e. "ass" and "shit"). PG-13 rated films may contain up to four "harsher sexually derived words". However, if a character in a film says a "harsher sexually derived word" five or more times, it is routine today for the film to receive an R rating.
Wait, so hearing the word “fuck” four times is categorically different from hearing it five times?  But… doesn’t it matter what is actually meant?  The abovementioned word has so many dictionary definitions that it boggles my mind.  Does the MPAA care whether it’s used to denote a sexual action, a viciously aggressive aspersion, a relatively high-scoring Scrabble word, a superlative infix (fan-fucking-tastic!) or a cheerful, “Fuck, yeah!”?
Nope.  Doesn’t matter.  “The King’s Speech” – a film about King George VI and his struggles to overcome a profound stutter – was given an R rating because in one scene the title character is urged by his unconventional speech therapist into demonstrating that he can swear without any difficulty at all.  Ok, maybe it’s not all that likely that 15-year-old European-history-aficionados flocked to this movie, but I’m pretty sure that, had they done so, it wouldn’t have done them any harm.
In thinking about why Jay and I have been so careful not to swear (much) in front of the kids, I realize that our goals have probably (subconsciously) been twofold.  First, we have simply been trying to teach the kids social etiquette, on par with, “grownups don’t think it’s funny when you say ‘train wreck’ and then show your friends the masticated contents of your mouth.”  Shouting “shit!” at a coffeepot does not actually hurt anyone, in any material or psychological way, any more than holding one’s crotch when one needs to pee hurts anyone (parents, you’re with me on this one, right?) -- but it simply isn’t polite. 
Secondly, and in my mind more importantly, we’ve been trying to protect the kids from the context of dirty words – specifically, the kind of uncontrolled anger that comes with swearwords shouted in rage.  Sure, words are just syllables.  But words have power – sometimes terrible power.  Words can inoculate the listener with fear.  With hatred.  With violence.
And thus we come to violence.
I’m against it. 
I’m pretty sure I come across as a wayward hippie parent in many of my other moral boundaries (stay tuned for “nudity”), but I’ve got a peculiarly conservative bent on this one, and I may actually be more prudish than the MPAA. Swearing is something my kids are probably going to do, eventually; violence, I hope, is not.  Violence, is something that my children – and everyone else’s children -- don’t ever need to learn how to do.  “Ok, kids, now that you’re 18, you’re probably old enough to start massacring people with chainsaws!” 
What age is the “right age” for exposing kids to bloodshed, war, zombie massacres, and other traumatic themes?  Well, it depends in part on the kids.  Mine, as I’ve noted previously (http://latitude.nancyfresco.com/2013/07/page-turner.html), are huge wimps – and that’s fine with me. 
Violence is part of the real world, of course, and it’s something kids need to learn about, but Molly and Lizzy seem to need to take things slowly.  I know from experience that they find the degree of loss and anguish in Finding Nemo and the Wizard of Oz to be about the limit of what they can handle. It was hard enough trying to explain exactly what the Bataan Death March was, when the twins learned (as part of a recent family history homework assignment) that their great-grandfather is a survivor of that atrocity.  I’m not about to let them see Gallipoli, Schindler’s List, or Full Metal Jacket. 
I don’t really blame my kids for being a bit freaked out by violence – or even just by anger and scary situations depicted in books and movies.  Kidnapping, poisoning, knife-fighting, and murder are Really Really Bad, and I’m pretty they’re illegal in most states (except for Texas, where they’re encouraged).  Nonetheless, they show up all over Disney, and then some.  An analysis of 24 G-rated Disney films released between 1937 and 2000 found 464 violent incidents and use of 564 weapons.
This isn’t to say I wouldn’t let my kids watch any or all of these movies (although some serious parental sedation might be required, were I expected to watch all 24 Disney films with them). While I don’t want them to emulate or enjoy real-life violence, I do want them to understand it.  And, in fact, part of me suspects that the reason they are so wimpy about Scary Stuff is not because they don’t understand it, but because they do.
One of the most memorable moments of last summer’s Star Wars Debacle came when Lizzy, lying awake long, long after bedtime, told me about what was (in her mind) the scariest part of the film: the destruction of Alderaan.  This startled me, because the planet is seen blowing up from afar, without a speck of blood and gore.  Despite Leia’s tortured anguish (“But Alderaan is peaceful!) the scene is pretty darned abstract for a little kid.  But, as Lizzy explained, “They [the other kids] act like it’s nothing, because you don’t see it -- but they shouldn’t do that; it’s not nothing!”
Ok, I did explain to my child that Darth Vader did not, in fact, cause millions of voices to cry out in terror and be suddenly silenced, what with him not being real and all.  I want Molly and Lizzy to be able to parse the differences between reality and fiction.  I want them to learn the truth.  But… a little at a time.  The true depths of human depravity are too much to process, in second grade. 
Really, I should give them credit.  They are starting to be able to discern when violence is not scary (in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, despite a thoroughly vicious and blood-soaked bunny) and when it is (“Mommy, war is a very, very bad idea, isn’t it?”) At the age of seven, the twins are starting to get pretty good at figuring out which activities can reasonably be mimicked, and which should be forever relegated to the world of grownups-only, or forever-off-limits or make-believe.  As I’ve noted, they are not swearing, and as far as I know they are not sharing their precocious knowledge of biology with their classmates.  Kids can be way more circumspect than we give them credit for.  And, amazingly, they can understand context.  Context!  Indeed, they seem to be able to understand it far better than the MPAA does.
We can block our kids from learning about the world.  Or, we can teach them about it a little at a time, always in context, always with the full depth of attached information (which I can’t help thinking of as “metadata”) about emotion, appropriateness, audience, civility, and kindness.  Yes, this is complicated.  Yes, it might take the full length of a childhood to learn.  Heck, it might take a lifetime.  Maybe, ultimately, that’s my point. 
I’m sure my kids know the real naughty words.  But they have never, ever tried to use them.  And to me, this is actually better than not knowing them at all.  Why?  Well, it shows that they understand context, and social rules, and expectations.  Ultimately, understanding these subtleties seems much more useful – and much more intelligent – than remaining ignorant of a few potent combinations of phonemes.
“Oh…heck” said the young guy with the coffee-burned fingers.  And in those two words alone, he did my kid a favor more complex than anything that the MPAA seems to be able to grasp.  First, he acknowledged and owned his previous utterance.  Second, he corrected it, thus demonstrating that inappropriateness warrants correction.  And, finally, through that correction -- and the warm smile that accompanied it -- he demonstrated that it’s important to be kind to others, and sensitive to their sensibilities. 
I couldn’t help smiling back at this well-meaning 20-year-old who was trying so hard (albeit a bit after-the-fact) to be part of the Adult Conspiracy that protects little people.  He was trying to be considerate and kind.  When it comes down to it, I can think of few things this world needs more than efforts in that direction. 

Saturday, November 2, 2013


And the cool kids are… [wait for it… wait for it…]
…the people in the caps with a “B”! 
A picture of a pair of socks will also do.  But not, for heaven’s sake, a picture of a bird. After all, as everybody knows, the world is divided into “Us” and “Them” – and these distinctions are as immutable as the bad hotdogs at ballparks.
I grew up watching baseball, and loving every ponderous inning of spitting, swinging, and scratching.  Even though my interest waned with adolescence and distance from Shea Stadium, every time I see a ramped-up Facebook post about how Our Team is clobbering, trouncing, or flattening Their Team, I want to grin, kick back, and second-hand-enjoy the illogical bliss of these die-hard fans.  I want to -- but I stumble. Sometimes sports-hoopla seems like a too-potent reminder of the Hatfields-and-McCoys or Montagues-and-Capulets side of human nature. 
In elementary school, my compatriots and I enjoyed one day each spring known as Field Day.  Field Day was a competition featuring useful skills such as Everyone Gets Crushed by the Bigger Kids During Tug-o-War.  Somehow, our gym teachers persuaded us that this was a Really Big Deal.  We practiced for the event for several weeks, during which time every child in the school became increasingly rabid about who was Red and who was Blue. 
This was huge.  It put friendships on hold.  It put everything on hold.  By the eve of the Big Event, instead of actually running around and playing at recess, kids faced off against each other for screaming matches.  “Extra, extra, read all about it, Blue’s gonna win, and there’s no doubt about it!”  I have no idea why we all thought we were Depression-era newsboys, but we had good lungs.  REALLY good lungs.  Honestly, it’s surprising that the playground aides weren’t either homicidal or suicidal – although the one we all referred to as “Prune Face” may have required heavy medication.
Even at the time – as I participated in the screeching, and hunted through my third-grade wardrobe to make sure I wore clothes of the right color, and ONLY the right color – part of me knew that the whole thing was weird, trumped-up, and perhaps even a bit disturbing.  Sure, we didn’t metamorphose into the Crips and the Bloods, but some kids did get mean.  Why was I yelling at my own sister?  Well, ok, yelling at my sister was kind of normal.  But why was I antagonistic toward my best friend?  Why did this antipathy feel as it was somehow beyond my conscious control?
You say that folks all over Boston are partying in the streets because people whom they don’t even know are pretty good at whacking a little white ball with a stick?  Uh-huh. Yup.  I’ve delved a bit into psychology literature that elucidates just how shallow and war-mongering Homo sapiens can be, if given the chance to put on different-colored hats and shriek imprecations at one another. It ain’t pretty.
Of course, at some level, the feud of the Reds versus the Blues was merely competition.  Even as a kid I was plenty familiar with the idea that most games had winners and losers.  Sometimes the losers were bummed enough to sweep the whole Candyland board off the table and stalk away in a huff.  I wasn’t one of those kids; as the younger sibling, I had to be relatively ok with losing.  I lost at Facts in Five, I lost at chess, and I lost at bridge.  In fact, I was amused by the fact that bridge scores were officially – officially! – noted as “We” and “They”.  I always kind of wanted to be on the “We” team, but I knew it didn’t really make a difference.  It wasn’t forever.  It wasn’t real.  It was a label, but it didn’t define me.
That, of course, is the crux of the matter.  Competition is not intrinsically bad.  Differences are not bad.  Temporary labels aren’t bad.  Unchecked divisiveness, however, can fester. “We” and “They” or “Red” and “Blue” are not really the problem, so long as the alliances are fluid.  At the end of a bridge match (ok, fine, a “bridge rubber” – because, yes, it’s called a “rubber”), the teams dissolve.  At the end of Field Day, the Blues and the Reds melded together into mauve happiness.  In the Real World, however, the divisions run deeper.  The Reds and the Blues keep the battlements up.  In the real world, there are too many ways in which our “We and They” mentality can take deeper root. 
This frequently occurs – to pick an example, oh, totally at random -- in Congress.
Back when the entire US government ground to a globally embarrassing halt a few weeks back, I struggled to explain the phenomenon to the kids.  “The people we elected to run the country can’t agree about how much money to spend on what.  And… they aren’t playing nicely.  They aren’t listening.  They aren’t being reasonable.” I then proceeded to explain my own position on the issues at hand – which, given the other folks with whom we eat dinner in our liberal-intellectual no-it’s-not-a-commune community, represented not merely my opinion, but Our Opinion.  Yes, kids, this is what the Good Team thinks!  Um… yeah.  I found myself wondering, a bit uncomfortably, how well I would do, if tasked with “playing nicely” with the other team, a.k.a. Them.
Don’t get me wrong -- I realize that in politics, the divisions are not arbitrary, as they are in grade-school sporting events (or grownup sporting events – admit it, you hat-wearing people).  The differences are ideological.  They are tremendously important. We don’t need to – and indeed shouldn’t -- water down our opinions or our moral choices.  But we do need to alter the mentality with which they are examined and discussed.
I’m not going to give a rundown on all my core beliefs, economic frustrations, and ideas about governance in this blog post.  I’d like a few readers to stay awake, and I have so many years of potential blog post ahead of me (aren’t you EXCITED!?).  However, I’ll assert that I’ve thought these ideas and beliefs through pretty carefully.  I’m a scientist, so I try not to swallow statistics without understanding them, or spout facts without checking them.  Nonetheless, I can’t pretend that there is no emotional component involved, when it comes to choosing sides in our politically polarized nation.  I can’t pretend that I don’t listen a trace more carefully when my friends are sharing their thoughts, as opposed to when Fox News is blaring in the background at an airport terminal.  And I’ve noticed that if my team occasionally makes a factual or strategic error, I write it off as just that – an error.  Fix it, apologize, and move on.  But I tend to perceive the errors perpetrated by Them as somehow more intentional and more malevolent.  “They” are not just wrong; “They” are conniving, disingenuous, manipulative, evil
“Blue’s gonna win, and there’s no doubt about it!”
The weird thing is, this kind of thinking is hard to recover from, even in the face of direct evidence to the contrary.  I can meet individuals with social, political, or religious ideologies very different from my own, and I can LIKE these people.  I can recognize that, as individuals, they do not actually want children to go hungry, old ladies to go without their arthritis medication, or school roofs to cave in – even if they do not support the programs that I feel would alleviate these problems.  In the same vein, I’m pretty sure that such individuals recognize that I (as a human-type-person whom they know) don’t actually support the US being destroyed by terrorists or overtaken by a totalitarian regime, even if I don’t always agree with the way in which our nation attempts to avoid such dreadfulness.  So far, so good, on an individual basis.  But collectively, we view each other with suspicion, at best – and, at worse, with vituperative animosity. We draw the lines, and we don’t cross them.  Us.  Them.
I’m both fascinated and appalled by how we self-assort, at every level of life, and according to varied metrics.  Gender, race, sexual orientation, region or nation of origin, level of education, voting habits, reading habits, employment, breakfast beverage, baseball cap design – which cues and clues am I using, I wonder?  And which (oh, horrors) are my kids using?
Kids think in pure terms.  Good. Bad.  No middle ground.  If they know that alcohol is Bad and that bike helmets are Good, they will stare in horror at an adult who is sipping a glass of wine or briefly rolling helmetless in his own driveway.  They may even abjectly embarrass their parents by pointing and loudly decrying these naughty, naughty grownups.  We adults do a lot of preaching about Right and Wrong, but we need to work on our Shades of Gray speech, too.  While we’re at it, we could work on our Us and Them speech, too.  Our Winners and Losers speech.  Our Red and Blue speech.  Field Day was fun, wasn’t it, kids?  Now how about some dull lecturing!
Nobody tried for that sort of thrilling follow-through after Field Day 1979.  But it now strikes me that this may be an area in which we actually are making progress, for all that our electoral maps scream otherwise.  That is, I hear a lot of grousing about how our kids aren’t being trained to be competitive enough.  This probably means we’re doing a fantastic job, collectively, of ensuring fewer government shutdowns in the year 2048.  Not competitive enough?  Sure, Field Day would not have been as much fun, if we hadn’t cared – obsessively – about who won.  But it might have been even better, if (perhaps after the last kid had been rescued, gasping, from the tug-o-war melee) our teachers had talked to us a bit about teamwork, and competition, and cooperation, and the whole fuzzy mess that lies between the extremes.  
These days, teachers and coaches are doing just that.  They are letting kids know that sometimes the Reds need to listen to the Blues, and vice versa. Sometimes one team will win.  Sometimes, everyone wins.  So maybe what we need now is a little upward mobility in this lesson.   Listen up, grownups!  Sometimes the team with the “B” on their caps will win.  Sometimes one view will be proven correct -- but the process needn’t involve rancor, bloodshed, National Park Service websites with bleak “we are closed” messages, or the cancellation of an entire season of federally-funded Antarctic research.  Sometimes, after all the civil, reasonable words have been spoken, everyone will end up a little less Red, a little less Blue, and a little more mauve. 
All of Boston is partying in the streets because a bunch of tight-white-trousered guys they don’t know won a game?  Well… ok.  I would never dump the cash necessary to attend a World Series game – or even to buy the hat – but were I in Boston, I’d probably be cheering just a little bit, too.  After all, Boston (once, long ago) was MY town.  Baseball (once, even longer ago, in shining childhood Shea Stadium hours I shared with my dad) was MY game.  True, sometimes the stakes in Real Life are too high for us to assort ourselves by the lettering on our caps.  But at other times – so long as we can admit that it makes no sense, and so long as nothing is too irredeemably serious -- there can be joy in a little game of Us and Them. 
We just need to know the difference.
Play ball, America.  Play ball.