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Things my daughter believes we need to bring with us in case of a fire

The other morning at the breakfast table, my almost-six-year-old daughter started laying out her whole life plan for me. I wound up recording about 14 minutes of it, since Sprout was really on a roll (yes, her Eggo got cold).

She had everything planned out:

  • Her career
  • Her spouse’s career
  • Where they were going to live before and after they had kids
  • How many kids she was going to have
  • What pet each kid was going to have (and be personally responsible for)
  • Where her brother Button would live, and how Button would take care of the kids she already had if she was giving birth to the younger ones (because she expects her spouse to stay with her in the hospital “just like you did with Mom.”)
  • How they would all evacuate their house in the event of a fire

Hold Up — What was that last one?

She’s been very focused on what to do in the event of a fire.

  • Who’s going to get Luna?
  • What if we’re outside and can’t hear the smoke detectors?
  • What if a fire starts when we’re asleep?
  • Will we go to the front yard, or the back yard?
  • No, really, who’s going to get our cat? We won’t have time to put Luna in her carrier.

The other day she made an emergency kit in a pile on the couch:

  • Snugglies, including Fletcher (her forever favorite) and Sushi Cat.
  • Toys
  • A coat, in case the fire happens at night when it’s cooler
  • A blanket
  • Snacks

She’s a very structured kid. She likes process and routine. It makes sense to her. So she’s drafting this all in her mind when she starts thinking about fire.

And she’s thinking about fire a lot lately. Sometimes so much that she says she can’t think of anything else.

But it’s not as if suddenly there’s been a lot of external references to fire that she’s been bombarded with. We don’t live near a fire station, nobody we know has dealt with a fire recently, and the only time we’ve ever had to call the fire department was years ago for what fortunately turned out to be a very minor issue.

So… Yeah. Where did this come from?

Buddy Holly, “Ben Hur”, space monkey, Mafia

Years ago my friends and I would riff on “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” adding new verses to this random jumble of baby boomer buzzwords. Looking back on that word salad, it feels like a proto-Twitter stream.

And I think about that because of all this around us right now. The ambient anxiety. The multi-pronged, world-on-fire assault on our attention every day.

With all that going on around her, and being a young kid, she’s processing only part of what’s going on. She understands social distancing, and she understands why she can’t play with her friends, why school closed, and why (for a long time) she couldn’t even go near her grandparents.

A fire is smaller and easier to respond to than all this.

Sometimes it comes up to the surface

Before bed time every night, Sprout and I read together. Normally I prop myself up in her bed with a few of her snugglies, but the other night she asked me not to use Nice Bear.

“Nice Bear has a fever,” she said, “And snugglies don’t have vaccines. But they do have medicine. So she’ll get better, but you shouldn’t put her in bed tonight.”

The subtext of her anxiety has always been about this pandemic, but it doesn’t always come out as directly as it did in that conversation.

Sprout is an intense extrovert who was cut off from her Young Fives Kindergarten class months ago and has spent most of that time with me, her mom, and her baby brother. Nothing about this new normal feels normal to her.

She craves the world that she’s known for most of her life and that’s kept just out of reach.

When we go out into the backyard, she makes up Star Wars themed games and tells me to do voices (My Ewan McGregor Obi-Wan has gotten pretty good over the last two months). But what do these Rebels and Imperials do every time we play?

They plan birthday parties. Or Christmas. They invite guests and think about food and games and presents.

It’s the flip side of her panic planning about fire safety.

She could have adventures in the farthest corners of the galaxy, but all she wants is to play games with some friends and share cake.

What I can and cannot do for her

I can hug her as many times a day as she’ll let me.

I can tell her she’s loved, and her mom and I will do everything we can to keep her safe, no matter what.

I can wear a mask, and can be vigilant about my own exposure when I have to venture out into the world without her (especially soon, knowing that I’m required to teach face-to-face in a classroom).

I can pretend to be Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader and, yes, even Luke Skywalker, if that’s what she needs.

But I cannot make sure that her school is safe for her to attend.

And I cannot convince every person to make the small concession for the health and safety of others and wear a damn mask.

And I cannot single-handedly convince the federal government to just try and do better.

I cannot step into a clean suit and stare into a microscope until I have an a-ha moment that allows me to save everyone with a simple answer nobody has thought of.

And I cannot be all the friends she misses. I cannot be a kid.

We do not have a metric for all we’re losing

We can measure the lives lost.

We can measure the number of people who were infected.

We can measure the number of people who were exposed, or at least the number of people who were able to get a test because they thought they were exposed and were able to jump through whatever hoops were required of them to get a medical opinion.

We can measure the number of people filing unemployment claims. We can measure the number of businesses closed or filing for bankruptcy. We can measure the value of the stock market and the GDP.

But we have nothing that measures how many good ideas will never be put to use from the people we’ve lost, or because the people still living haven’t been able to think about anything other than their fear or anger or exhaustion.

We can’t measure the achievements, advancements, or good deeds lost. We can’t even guarantee that some of these things have only been delayed.

We cannot know the landscape of the path we shall never travel.

And if we cannot have some kind of measure to know what we could have achieved if our nation hadn’t been forced a poisoned cocktail of unpredictable, indiscriminate disease and conscious, callous government disinterest and disinformation…

All we can do now is the same thing we could do before.

Wake up every day and try.

Force yourself out of the doomscrolling (literal and figurative) and find that small patch of goodness that you can tend.

If you don’t know where to start, make a list of the essentials. The things you need now, and any time that all this feels like too much.

And don’t forget to include snacks and snugglies.

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Don’t burn your bagel

We have a finicky toaster oven. The done-ness indicators on the dial are basically meaningless. I have a suspicion it’s collecting data on our use and reactions for a psychological experiment.

So when I put a bagel in the other morning, I knew I had to keep an eye on it. It’s also the moment Sprout decided she needed a refill on her Rice Krispies. And more banana.

And we had the radio on, which I was semi-paying attention to, since they were doing a news update.

Then Button decided to drop his teething chew thingamajig. This displeased him.

With these competing demands and draws for my attention, it would be very easy to forget the need to watch my bagel. The more I paid attention to these other inputs, the more likely it was that I’d be spreading cream cheese on a charcoal-tinged disc.

I won’t belabor the metaphor: This is all about avoiding burnout.

The repeated mantra somebody sent me that I’m keeping close to heart right now is “You’re not working from home. You’re at home trying to work.”

My job teaching at a university is not one designed to be done from the corner of my house over a webcam. Even if it was, the added complications of schools being closed, needing to be socially distant from our primary child care providers (aka, Sprout & Button’s grandparents), and losing just about every pressure release valve getting out of the house can provide… It can be easy to take your eye off the bagel.

Honestly, it got to the point where I wasn’t even sure where the bagel was, or what the bagel was.

P.S. “The Trip” is one I’m rewatching as mental comfort food right now.

But in this case, the bagel is what sustains you. It keeps you going. It gives you energy and pleasure and a reason to get up in the morning.

And right now, that bagel is jammed in an unpredictable toaster oven of a world. There’s no telling from moment-to-moment what the day or the week will try to do to that bagel.

You’ll miss the signs that something is going wrong if you get distracted.

And right now, it is very easy to get distracted.

Maybe it can help to use a timer, like the one on the toaster oven. To tell yourself that for X amount of minutes, this next thing is your bagel, and it’s going to have your complete attention. It’s one step I’m trying.

For me, it feels like my focus is an important tool to sharpen right now. Maybe you feel it, too.

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“Derek doesn’t have a penis. He has wind chimes.”

We’ve been watching The Good Place with our five-year-old.

Don’t make that face. I see it.

Dena and I are huge fans of The Good Place, just like we were fans of Parks & Recreation, but we were moved to start introducing it to our daughter as a way to prompt discussion with her about being kind, and what it means to think about doing kind things for other people and for herself.

Yes, the show has a lot of fart jokes, but it also has teachable moments about making good choices and being honest.

Some of the stuff flies right over her head, and we’re fine with that. Even when things like this happen:

(Sprout’s grandfather’s iPhone makes the Chimes alarm sound)

Dena: (under her breath, to me) Derek?

Sprout: (enthusiastic, to her grandma) There’s this show called The Good Place and there’s a character named Derek. Derek doesn’t have a penis. He has wind chimes!

Look… I regret nothing.

Yes, watching this show with her means that we have embarassing moments like that, and it also means we have to watch her imitate Bad Janet farts so, so many times.

But it means that we get to talk with her about big, important ideas about being a good person.

It means she gets to watch a show that had a strong commitment to purposefully diverse casting, showing her a more accurate depiction of the different people that make up our world and our communities.

And it will give us a chance to talk about doubt, and fear, and despair, and cruelty. Because there’s plenty of reason to discuss those things, and to start giving her the tools to call them out and rise above them.

We would never stick her in front of a TV and hit autoplay on this show. It’s a lot, even for grown-ups. If we watch an episode, we usually spend time afterward talking through what we saw.

But the act of watching with her is important. So she sees us actively engaging with the story and the ideas in the story. So she can ask us questions. And so she can get into the habit of treating the media she consumes more thoughtfully.

When I was a kid, I watched movies as a way to talk with my dad about atomic bombs and the Cold War. These were heavy topics, but the giant monsters and cheesy effects made it palatable.

But the message of the act of watching stuck with me: Never take a story for granted, and always ask why this story is being told.

That’s a question I want my kids to be confident in asking.

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When writing feels like cutting teeth

My son is teething hard. I had a dream that he suddenly went from no teeth to eight teeth overnight, and some days it seems like he’s determined to make that a reality.

“nom nom nom”

It’s a hard process. Each tooth needs to erupt from the gums, which takes a lot of time, force, and pain.

And when it’s all done, and they get those baby teeth in, that’s not the end of the story. There’s a second draft of that mouthful of teeth, waiting on deck.

If you’ve never seen an image of a child’s skull with both sets of teeth inside, it’s… something else.

I’m a little sorry if this makes you horrified of small children.

I’ve been focused on new projects lately. First drafts and new collaborations. Ideas pushing hard, trying to break through and emerge.

And there are times when it feels painful. Like things aren’t moving fast enough, and you just wish you could force things along faster, (like how I imagine Button feels when he’s gnawing on a teether).

Yes, it looks like a coffee cup. I am relentlessly #onbrand, even when picking out baby stuff.

Or when you know that you need to choose to put your butt in the seat and get some ideas out onto the page, but you have to choose that over other things that might also be be fun or important.

But I have to remind myself that the work can continue, and the pages will come, and then… well that’s when it’s time for the next draft.

Which brings me back to that baby skull full of teeth.

Because getting the idea out into the world isn’t the final act. Those pages and ideas fall out and get cast off to make way for bigger, stronger ideas.

But trust that even before that first idea has broken through, the full shape of what’s to come is there, in your head. And it just takes time, and force, and pain.

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It’s not my favorite

My students ask for my opinion on things, especially when I’m covering film and television in class.

Sometimes it’s a litmus test to get to know me. Sometimes they want to hear if I’ve got an opinion so they feel free to share theirs. And sometimes it’s just pre-class chatting about whatever’s trending.

There was a time when I was in their shoes, where I would have lots of insufferably demanding opinions about the things I watched. Since then, I’ve become a little more generous.

Mostly because I just don’t feel like spending energy on being negative.

It’s easier to point to reasons why something works well than to explain exactly what’s wrong with it

You can feel fairly confident in pointing out something that’s working in a narrative and why it works. But if there’s something in a film or show that you bump on; that doesn’t work for you, it’s not always easy to tell what caused that disconnect.

For one thing, pointing out what doesn’t work involves making suggestions for what could have worked better. You can offer opinions, but that’s a conversation about some imagined version that isn’t constrained by whatever realities of production shaped the actual finished product.

Without being there in the midst of the process of making a thing, it’s easy to cast blame, but hard to be correct in your accusations.

It doesn’t do my students, or me, any favors to offer half-assed opinions on what went wrong with something.

One thing I’ve gotten more confident with as I’ve gotten older (and as I’ve gotten more experience with teaching) is not having an opinion on everything.

My daughter has the right idea

It was a vocal quirk that she developed early on, but she’s stuck with it as she’s gotten older. When Sprout didn’t like something, she was likely to say:

“It’s not my favorite.”

What better way to put it when something doesn’t bowl you over? When you can see the flaws, but don’t feel a need to engage in a lengthy post-mortem examination. You can just move on.

Because I’d rather talk about exciting things I think we should aspire to instead of wasting time in discussions that say more about the people in the conversation than the thing they’re supposedly talking about.

What good does it do for me to add my voice to a chorus excoriating something for failing to satisfy its audience?

If I’m going to ask students to write with respect and empathy, then I should extend that same kindness to people who made a good faith effort to make something.

There’s no required response to artistic entertainment.

I’m not required to like it. I can’t be forced to list my disagreements with it. And I shouldn’t point fingers without accurate knowledge of the inner workings of the project.

If given the choice between trying to feel smugly superior to others who have taken on a difficult task, or to admire the work of giants, I know where I stand. I’d rather live in the shadow of the greats, aspiring toward something higher, than spending my time pretending I can trample others under my own feet.