Jun 7 2014

He Likes You

At that age, I remember, romance was awkward and bartered or brokered by your friends. That cute boy, one seat up and two rows over, put butterflies in your stomach. In the lunch line you mentioned it to a friend, or else she already noticed. With your permission, or sometimes against your wishes, she’d find him later in the hall and ask him if he liked you.
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Often nothing came of these declarations of like. Sometimes a short, non-romantic romance would result, with smiles across the classroom and if you were lucky a quick hand-holding on the school steps, phone calls at home. For two weeks you’d be “going steady” until he got tired of being teased by his friends, or somebody else expressed affection for you via proxy messenger. You never did the dirty work on your own. You sent a friend to break the bad news to your once coveted beau of one seat up and two rows over.

I got dumped this way as often as I did the dumping. That was middle school romance.

That was also the ’70s. I have to imagine, based on the influence of the increasingly vulgar advertising and sexually explicit media that it’s very different today. I’ve read accounts of experimentation at ages almost too young for me to imagine. I brace myself for the worst.

Then I look at Short-pants and I can’t fathom this kind of behavior from her. She hasn’t folded into the fast social cliques. Maybe we’ve accidentally found a school where this kind of pressure isn’t part of the landscape. Or else it is, and she just doesn’t see it given her charming naiveté. She doesn’t ask to go out with her friends. She’s not that keen on sleepovers. She’s friendly with a gang of kids at school, but she rarely asks to bring anyone home or go anywhere else. At her age I was begging my mother to let me hang out with friends after school, champing at the bit to go out to the “rec center” every weekend night, already eyeing boys in my class and older. Short-pants, though more social than before, is pretty much a homebody. She’d rather sit in her room and read.

This week, though, she’s come home from school nearly every day with an update about a potential suitor. Eduardo (not his real name) is quirky but not an outsider. Based on her description of him, I’d wager he’s fairly extraverted and possibly one of the class clowns. He makes up pet names for her – not mean ones, but silly ones, with a slightly affectionate tone – and he’s constantly tapping her on the opposite shoulder, stealing her bag and running away, finding ways to engage her which come right up to but never quite cross the boundary of annoying.
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I explained to her, trying my hardest not to be patronizing, that this is how pre-adolescent boys display their affection. And it’s been confirmed. Every day this week a different classmate approached her with a comment, a variation on the theme: “Eduardo likes you. Do you like him?”

“How do you respond?” I asked her, yesterday.

“I don’t,” she said. “I just laugh it off.”

Phew.

I extended my arm to her and pulled her into my room. Some of our best conversations happen laying on the big bed staring at the ceiling. These heavier talks happen more easily, I think, if you don’t have to look your mother in the eye.

We talked about the possible scenarios at play: Eduardo really likes her and he’s sending scouts to find out if it’s reciprocated. Or he’s unable to express it any other way and everyone else is trying to help. Or because she’s the slightly offbeat girl, he’s targeted her for teasing and as soon as she likes him back he’ll point at her and laugh.

That last scenario seems a bit harsh, and I emphasized that it’s probably not the case. But in matters of teenage social interactions, one must be prepared for any eventuality. Her eyes teared up a little at this – I glanced sideways quickly, pretending not to notice – and I felt a bit shitty for having even suggested it. Except in the end I think it’s better to have considered it and discover it’s not the case rather than the other way around.

“Here’s the more important question,” I said. “Do you like Eduardo?”

She fell silent, considering my question.

“No,” she said, in a most grounded way. “I don’t like him.”

She thought about it some more and added, “except as a friend.”

I told her not to get caught up in all the noise from his friends and to start liking him simply because he likes her, or says he likes her. The reason to like a person – I kept it deliberately gender neutral, too, because, well, you never know – is because they are kind or funny or smart or you find them physically appealing. Or hopefully some combination of those qualities.

“You should never feel you have to like someone just because they like you.”

Saying this out loud thrust me into a time machine, back into those awkward middle and high school moments of (at the time) great social consequence. I wanted so desperately to have a boyfriend – all my friends did – that sometimes I just accepted the placeholder. It took me a decade of dating to love_in_a_dinerreally get that the first question wasn’t who liked me, but who I liked. And even with that knowledge, I still made a mistakes with some of my adult romances, falling hard for someone who pursued me so passionately that I was blinded to how bad he was for me.

“I’m not ready to have a boyfriend,” she said, “not yet.”

“That’s probably true,” I said, relieved.

Given her proclamation, though, it won’t be long before she is.


Mar 6 2013

The Ennui

I heard a long, shrieking moan from upstairs. I couldn’t tell it if was one of Short-pants‘ angry moans or the start of a crying jag. I walked to the foot of the stairs and turned the ear that wasn’t against the telephone – I was talking to my sister – to try and hear what was happening. After the initial wail, nothing. It was quiet.
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Had I not been on the telephone, I’d have called up to her or climbed up to check. But I hate it when I’m talking to someone who switches to a conversation with their kids mid-stream, often without a warning or a quick excuse me. Since there wasn’t any continuation from the original cry, I figured she’d sorted it out. If not, I knew I’d hear from her.

After the call finished, I went upstairs and found Short-pants curled up in her bed. Buddy-roo was sitting beside her, stroking her hair with a consoling air.

“She has a fever,” Buddy-roo said, somber, like a doctor pronouncing a fatal illness.

I put my hand on Short-pants’ forehead. There was nothing feverish about it.

“What’s wrong, sweet?” I asked.

“I just felt…” She paused and moaned again. “…some boredom coming on.”

I swallowed the snicker that wanted to leap out – this is one of those instances when parenting requires such suppression – trying to think of how best to address the problem of what was clearly, to Short-pants, a serious ennui. All that came to mind was oh no, here comes adolescence.

“I’m afraid,” she whispered, as if in pain, “that I’m becoming a teenager.”

~ ~ ~

I can’t remember the last time I was bored. I think I might welcome it with my own kind of moan, one of joy. How lovely to have nothing in particular to do, no tasks in the queue, no pressing items on deck. I know boredom has its drawbacks, but I’d gladly endure them for a temporary bout of it.
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I think boredom must be good for you. In those moments of having nothing to do, or feeling like you have nothing to do, there’s reason to stop and reflect. What should I do? What do I want to do? Or even if you have a lot of things to do and it all seems tiresome – that’s a different kind of boredom – there’s an awareness that something is not quite right. It’s a signal to pay attention, a call to fix your direction, your mood, or both.

The opposite of boredom, I suppose, is being in the flow, aligned in mind and spirit with what you’re doing, so absorbed by an activity that hours pass quickly while engaged in it. It feels like this state of flow is harder and harder to achieve these days, compared to when Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first wrote about it in the ’90s, because our concentration is constantly interrupted, more than ever before.

How many of us live between boredom and flow, the purgatorial territory of just-tryin-to-keep-up? Not that it’s so terrible; there are moments of satisfaction and delight sprinting through the day-to-day. There’s even a little room for fun and laughter, just that it happens at the speed of light before turning nose back to the grindstone to attend to the oncoming deluge of professional, personal and familial tasks pressing forward. A little boredom wouldn’t hurt. More time in the flow would be ideal.

~ ~ ~

The girls are, at the moment, addicted to a game called Subway Surfer, which, thanks to the iCloud, exists on both my iPhone and iPad, so they don’t argue over who gets to play it. The app was downloaded as a reward, used only when homework and practice and chores are completed. It’s also a useful deterrent to interruptions when I have an evening conference call. In this game, the avatar – a punk kid with a spray can – is caught tagging in a train yard and must escape a captor by running along the tracks and up and over the trains, train_graffiticollecting large gold coins along the way. During the course of a single session, the more you succeed, the faster the little avatar screams along the rails, over and under barriers and zig-zagging around trains and through tunnels. Short-pants especially is adept at handling this speed with her index finger, Buddy-roo prefers her thumb but moves with agility to outrun the captor for longer than I can. My reflexes, though improving with practice, are still inferior to theirs. Or maybe I crash because it reminds me too much of my real life: things start out seeming in control, I’m buzzing along picking up coins and effortlessly jumping over obstacles. The more I seem to accomplish, the more there is to handle, and the speed of things seems to be like an avatar running out of control, crashing and burning beneath the front of an oncoming train.

~ ~ ~

She was a sweet little girl, innocent, naive, hopeful for a happy world. This is probably every mother’s elegy for a daughter on the doorstep of puberty. Having barely mastered wrestling with our own hormones, now we have to wrestle theirs, and help them with the wrestling, too. I’ve teased Short-pants, extracting promises from her not to become a rotten teenager. But it’s something we probably can’t avoid. The girl who who used to love school, who rushed to do her homework, who helped gladly with the household chores, is no longer. Okay, not entirely; her sweet smiling self is still present in our home. But she’s sometimes replaced by a quasi-grumpy girl who mopes and moans, does the bare minimum of any task assigned, school or home, and refuses to change out of her pajamas on the weekend.

She’s child/woman, not yet a teenager, but no longer little girl. One minute stomping out of the room, commanding us to leave her alone. The next, writing up a roster of fairies to use in a game of make-believe with her little sister. With all the changes going on inside that big girl/little girl body, I have no idea how on earth she could be bored. But I envy her for it. And I admire her theatrics. Let’s hope she manages all her ennui with such aplomb.


Dec 18 2011

No Protecting

He was wearing seersucker Bermuda shorts. He’d already kicked off his white boat shoes, they were laying on the floor in front of my seat. He wore a light charcoal colored T-shirt betrayed (or enhanced) by the stains of a long backpacker tour. His Justin Bieber hairdo was greasy, like the shirt. His muscled thighs were thick and he sat low in his seat so his knees fanned out to the sides, encroaching on the woman next to him, his young girlfriend who didn’t seem to mind, and on me on the other side, not so thrilled about sharing my airspace with him. He never once looked at me nor spoke to me; he only grunted when I asked if he might move his shoes, and his knee, to make a bit of legroom for me.

This is just the guy that keeps me up at night. I see him, when I’m walking Short-pants and Buddy-roo home from school. We pass by a lycée, its clumps of teenagers spilling out into the middle of the street. The girls look ridiculous, awkwardly pinching their cigarettes between superficial puffs. The boys shout vulgarities at each other across the street, the mating-call of the adolescent male. They shake their haircuts into place and wave their arms in the air, revealing five inches of black boxer shorts above the waistband of their jeans. I realize this is the current fashion – as a teenager I was slave to such timely styles, too – but still I constantly fight the urge to go grab their belt-loops on each side and hike those low-rider pants up until they fall correctly on the hips. Either that or give them the full wedgie they appear to be begging for.

This was that guy. He had the look, the bad-boy cool, which is really just a mask for his lack of confidence. Adolescent girls are easily blinded to this fact, which is why they always fall for him, with disappointing results. Even that I can take: teenage heartbreak is a part of growing up. But he’s the one that messes, purposely, with your daughter’s self-esteem. He kisses and tells, doesn’t-kiss-but-tells-he-did-anyway, callously adds her to his list of cavalier conquests. I knew this guy in high school, and in college. That’s why I can smell him a mile away.

At least I was on the aisle seat, so I leaned left and studied my Sudoku puzzle while the airplane taxied down the runway. Except on the other side of me there were two young American women, maybe just 20-years-old, swapping stories about their travels. Their conversation was loud, one of them in particular insisted upon broadcasting to a wide radius around her seat. I’d already turned on my noise-reducing earphones but I could still hear her clear as a bell. I was impressed with her capacity to incorporate the word like a minimum of three times in every sentence. Plus, you couldn’t help notice that rather than sharing her thoughtful insights about traveling, she was, like, showing-off, how, like, in-the-know she’d become.

I knew this girl, too. I was once her. Over-inflated, full of myself because finally I was out in the world, doing all the grown-up on-your-own things I’d dreamed of doing. I’m sure I spoke with the same overzealous disclosure, a would-be reflection on my experiences that was really just a chance to boast. But hopefully, at least, I did it with a little less volume, so only my immediate seat-mates were compelled to roll their eyes, not the entire cabin of the plane.

What saved me was that my in-flight entertainment screen wouldn’t work, even after two re-boots, so I was moved to another aisle seat further back, amongst sleeping, movie-viewing people who had no desire to impose or impress.

Sitting in the dark, in the rear of the plane, I wondered what it was that summoned my harsh judgments against these two young people. I worry about that type of guy preying on my daughters, that despite all the seeds I’ve already planted and all the prescient mother-daughter conversations yet to come, that they won’t recognize and steer clear of him. And I’m afraid that despite all the reminders about using their inside voice or any tips on art of conversation that I would hope to impart along the way, they will become that girl, that nearly intolerable it’s-all-about-me airplane conversationalist.

But there’s nothing I can do about it. They will meet that guy. They will encounter that girl, too, whether it’s in their circle of friends or in the mirror in front of them. They’ll meet bullies who torment them, friends who flip on them, humorless teachers who squelch their spirit. I can’t protect them. Even if I could, I shouldn’t. So much of life is what you figure out on your own.

When they’re little babies, there are compelling reasons to protect them. Now, as they grow, too much protection is helicoptering. I don’t want to do that. I want them to grow up fully, with the benefit of their own realizations and experiences. I want to help them to be free-range kids. I want to let them fail, at least a little, and figure out, on their own, how to recover. That’s how I learned to smell danger a mile away, that’s how they will, too.

Still, the urge is there. To warn them. To make them wiser. To help them skip the awkward phases of maturing and get through it faster, easier, better than I did. I know I can’t control what they choose to do in their lives, but I hope I can at least teach them how to make good choices. But how much longer do I have? They’re growing up fast.

On my way home from New Zealand, I stopped midway, in Los Angeles, to visit some friends. They have two teenaged children who look you in the eye, ask if they can help, share interesting, relevant facts about themselves when asked, and possess a sense of humor that is intelligent and thoughtful. This gives me much hope that when Short-pants and Buddy-roo are teens that they could be palatable individuals. I suppose part of that comes from steering them the right direction, and the other part, maybe, from holding your breath, crossing your fingers and just getting out of their way.

Shout Quietly Please is a painting by Dan Walker.