The Son who Loves those ‘Dorky Fantasies’ and the Mom who Loves him.

This started back when he was still small, probably six or seven. He could read, but I was still in the habit of reading to him each night. We had already finished as many Harry Potters as had been published by then, (which I loved; the dry humor always reminded me of Roald Dahl of my own childhood.) But Graham was now ready for The Hobbit, a natural boyish progression in the land of Fantasy fiction.

My own brother had tried to work me through all those plots too, when I was a child. He loved Tolkien, along with futuristic books like Dune, and anything by Ursula Le Guin. We were both children of the library. Being the hero-worshipping younger sister, I tried my hardest to fall in love with The Hobbit, but I didn’t get very far. It did inspire me to try writing my own inner Earth fantasy with talking bugs and moles and elves, complete with colored drawings. I didn’t worry too much about it. After all, even The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe series sort of bored me. I was more of a Jane Eyre, Little Women, April Morning sort of girl.

But then came my son. . .and a copy of The Hobbit.

This is honestly the only time I have fallen asleep while reading. . .and this was reading out loud. I’d get into the rhythm of pronouncing made up lands, made up people and made up vocabulary, and I’d just doze off, the book smacking me in the face. It was like reading to my son in a foreign language; I completely disconnected from my own voice. Oh, I tried. I’d literally prop my own eyelids up with my free finger tips. My poor boy would begin poking me because just before the book would nosedive, I’d start to ramble and mumble.

“Mommy. . .MOMmy! READ!” He was so hurt. Sadly, he finally took over and just read The Hobbit to himself. This might have been both my greatest failure and my finest success as a Mom.

Later came the Lord of the Ring movies. (I got to skip the books, halleleuah.) I adore movies, and I wanted to love the series to the point of obsession, just like everyone else on the planet. (What could possibly be wrong with any movie with Orlando Bloom, anyway?) Though I was a willing viewer of Part 1, Father and son had to force me to Parts 2 and 3. There is only so much Fight, Flee, Inspirational Speeches, Fight, Flee, Inspirational Speeches plot sequencing a woman can stand. Sure. Sure. We loved calling each other Precious for months, too, but I fell asleep during much of the films. They exhausted me.

When Hollywood finally got around to The Hobbit, my second, much younger son had been indoctrinated. So the whole family along with my sister-in-law and brother-in-law had to go. How could I say no. I literally walked out when the first reverent candle-lighting dwarf sing-a-long cropped up. Was I the only one who wanted to both groan and giggle at the sheer silliness of its pretension? Somber Dwarves, Hobbits, AND Gregorian chants? Too much. My family caught up with me rewatching Jack Reacher in another theater.

SOOOO. . .along comes my oldest son wanting to share his beloved Game of Thrones series of books. Luckily, The Hobbit all those years ago had not fully stopped our readers’ dialogue. He loved my Watership Down, I enjoyed his The Giver. But I knew with maps and zombielike creatures, I was heading into Tolkien-like territory with the GoT collection. Winter was coming, for sure.

I made it through the first two books okay. Admittedly, I ate through them in a week. No small feat at 800 plus pages each. Graham loved it and me for it. He could hint at what plot developments would come next, (where-spoiler alert-everyone must die!) He relished how many times I had to reference his giant Westeros map since my eyes are too old for the teensy ones in the books. . .even with “readers”. He could share my hatred of the same evil characters, but become defensive when I was getting offended by how incestuous every family was. The Lannisters, the Targaryans, the Wildling Craster, even a moment with the Greyjoys. . . what was up with author George R.R. Martin and his sister that this is the titillating plot he leans on so often. . .really? Luckily my son was old enough to discuss my distaste. . .

But by Book 3, I was suffering the Tolkien headache, the issue of a repetitious, never-flipping-resolved plot line. Remember that movie The Neverending Story with its addictive song? Whenever Graham came into my room for a plot discussion update, I just began singing, “It’s the never-ending stooooooreeeeee! eee! eee! eee! eee! eee! eee! eee! eee! eee!”

And as much as I loved connecting with Graham, I was starting to hate Martin. I didn’t want to face anymore dreary, muddy, starving, freezing, blood-drenched scenes where people I liked died. Horrendously. I gave up. I stopped. I found myself for the first time wanting to Wikipedia a damned book just to skip to the end, though I didn’t because, well, like I said: everyone dies. I figured I already knew the end.

A year later, I am home on medical leave, which leaves me time for reading. Out of reader’s desperation, I picked up Book 3 of Song of Ice and Fire (the real name of the series) again, only to find it as my favorite of the four I have read so far. After finding the chapter where I left off (pretty early, like chapter six or so) and after picking through Graham’s memory bank, I jumped back in.

I could not recall why I had gotten so burned out, for I enjoyed every word of the rest of that book (except maybe when he drones on with a bunch of minor characters’ names and histories-I skip those). Maybe it takes Martin a few books to finally find his rhythm? Maybe he stopped focusing on the incestuous and the sodomous? Whatever it is, I began to enjoy his characterizations, his ability to make us both love and hate a character (always a sign of a great writer.). Why in the world can I love the Jaime Chapters? How could Tyrion be my favorite voice? Why did I like the Sansa chapters and Graham hated them?

Graham is now of the age that he can discuss the deeper elements of fiction, the literary critical theories that apply. He was better versed than I at this, in fact; he knew what all the experts were saying about pretty much everything to do with the novels: theories on Martin’s psyche and process, analysis of Martin’s views on females, his use of famed mythology crossed with fictionalized history, and on and on. We have had some very intellectual (and pretentious) conversations, my son and I.

I’ve gotten so fond of the series (I am up to his fifth and final book, and I’m holding off just to savor it) that I take umbrage with the back cover blurb, calling Martin “the modern age Tolkien.” Whaaat? I’ve never hit myself in the face with any of George R.R. Martin’s books.

And let me say, Graham and I agree: Martin’s grasp of the greys of the human spirit, when it comes to the age-old good vs. evil themes, is so far superior to the stark whites and blacks of anything by Tolkien.

I know I was slow to the conversation on the GoT hubbub. But that’s okay. The books washed away my failings as a Hobbit reader and allowed me access back into my now grown son’s “dorky fantasy” world. (Those of us feeling left out use the word “dorky” as a defense mechanism, you know.) He can’t wait till I can bring myself to watch the actual TV series. I don’t relish watching the sex scenes with my “child” in the room. I’ll try to be as mature as Graham and not actively squirm. I’ve already checked out IMd and approved the pics of who plays whom. Wonderfully, one day soon, my youngest son, will be old enough to join the conversation as well. ..

Thanks, George Martin! May mothers everywhere embrace this chance to be on the same page as their sons.

Prejudice on Prejudice: Self-delusion

I live in the South. I should not have been as shocked as I was.

I say that, but I have often tried to defend the South, protect it from its own reputation. Back in grad school, Sarah Lawrence, famed for its liberalism in gender issues, gender equality, rich-kid black sheep, politics, agri-awareness, gluten free before most knew what gluten was, I had a roommate from Minnesota, still a dear friend. She came home with me one summer for a few weeks as college roomies tend to. Her very first crossing of the Mason-Dixon line. I quickly discovered she stepped off the plane feeling guarded, ready to step into activist mode just in case she witnessed inevitable acts of racism.

I laughed at her, really. What decade did she think she had deplaned into? What I watched instead was a young woman who had never really experienced integration. Here, she sat on buses, ate in restaurants, walked through galleries where workers and customers alike were black and white, socializing, equal. She liked to view herself as open-minded and completely racial-bias free, though reared in a 99.9% white city, attending the most expensive college in North America, where the only students in the one African American Literary studies class were all of the 27 African-American SLC students and one little white gal from the South, me (not her). It was tough for her to whisper to me in the Peachtree Diner that she just didn’t expect so many black people. She wasn’t a racist; just inexperienced. Easy to judge race relations isn’t it, when you never actually HAVE any yourself, right?

I returned to this theme when my husband took me for my second visit to San Francisco, his home town, famed for always being forward in human rights issues.
Again I found myself defending my South. We had spent the day sight seeing with one of Tony’s closest friends and his wife. Before they collected us at our hotel, we had encountered a completely naked man riding his bicycle around the Embarcadero fountain. Our youngest son who was nine at the time was so utterly shocked. Wasn’t that against the law (as his more modest older brother had threatened each time our youngest  streaked  the house after his baths)? He wanted to report this naked man to the local Mountie, who simply shrugged. Nine year olds are the fonts of Right vs. Wrong, and tattling. We quickly realized that hundreds of naked men, fleshy and taut alike, were straddling bikes for an annual protest of some sort. Hilarious little story we were sharing later with our friends-slash-tour guides.

Somehow this discussion transcended into parenting issues: whether living in SF where men can dangle their testicles out in public is as kid friendly as the South, where they believed racists bloomed on every veranda. Who would ever choose to raise children in the dirty South. . .? I defended this prejudice from folks who had never been to the South except maybe to gas up the family jet on their way to Europe.

I didn’t ingratiate myself when I asked just why they didn’t live or shop in Oakland? Why I didn’t see any African Americans sitting in this, their favorite restaurant, where we were enjoying each other’s company. I shared my observations of my former roommate’s visit. I don’t think they understood my point that they were as segregated as could be, but saw themselves as so evolved. Again, easy to judge when you don’t have any real race relations of your own to reflect upon.

I think what they heard me say was that racism is okay when you actually do have to rub shoulders. No, no. Not at all. My point was that the South in many ways has advanced much beyond where much of the rest of the country has, and one cannot know or praise his or her own metal unless it has been tested.

Last summer another close friend from California came to stay with us. Mike has three sons, two of whom are of mixed race, African-American and Thai. His youngest son and ours are great fast-friends, lego lovers, video game enthusiasts, mud grubbers in general. They see each other as cousins the way sons of good friends do. Again. . .sigh. . .Again, I was faced with that chip-on-shoulder mentality, the second Mike deplaned. He felt defensive in his son’s honor. I am not sure what he expected. Insults? Spit? After taking the boys to Walmart for a squirt gun run, he came home feeling exposed. He believed people were staring at this white Dad and his dark-skinned child.

“Both blacks and whites were looking at me funny.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes! Man, it was weird.”

“Are you sure?” I laughed at him. “Noooooo. Really?” I was not buying it.

“Well. . .I think so. . .” he waffled.

I launched into the story of my former college roommate, her assumptions. Mike acknowledged that he had never seen so many various races in one suburb before, just like my roomie had noted years ago. My hubby snorted at him, too, and said, “I think you’re just too sensitive.”

I teach at a local school, which is integrated, but majority black. If I was forced to guess, I would say that a good 25% of my kids are of mixed race, with one parent being white or Latino and the other African American. No one is giving each other the stink eye at Open House PTA nights. I can probably look up the stats since census loves to pigeon hole us. But my point to our friend Mike was this: “I’d bet that seeing you and your son is more ‘normal’ to the people you run into here than to the circles you encounter out West.”

Yes, I was right. His son attends a school that is primarily white. Mike knows very few other integrated families. But because being so liberal is knee-jerk there, Mike assumes that his segregated community isn’t nearly as judgmental as my South is. He was projecting his fears onto these Walmart shoppers.

What should we call this prejudice, the South-is-all-Racist-ism? Southernerphobia?

So here I am. . .a history of defending the new South, feeling that we have crossed bridges that other people haven’t even witnessed yet. So when I say I was shocked, but I don’t know why since I am in the deep South, I’m ironic.

This past Sunday, my mother-in-law who retired here from San Carlos, California, five years ago loves to throw St. Paddy’s day parties. She had us, my sister and brother-in-law, and several of her neighbors over for Corned Beef and Cabbage. I finally got to meet the famously sweet, Gloria, a retired baker who had been praying and baking for me for months now. I had eaten some of her most delicious strawberry cakes, lemon pound cakes, and tea cookies, for she knew I had been hospitalized and recuperating from major surgery, and gave to me because she loves her neighbor; it’s what Godly Southern women do. With her elegant upswept hair, her feminine sweater-set and pearls, she bear-hugged me and drawled about how many prayers she had been sending to God just for me to get better.

Somehow, even though we have been taught repeatedly to never discuss religion or politics in social settings, the discussion shifted to politics as it does in a social setting. Started on the topic of beer, shifted to “best beer”, to Yuengling, then to Obama’s favorite beer being Yuengling.

Sweet little old cake baker opens her mouth, “Oh Lord, not Obama. . .”starts to hesitate, but says, “Oh, I’m sure everyone here agrees with my vote. . .” Scary, words, those.

My dear sister-in-law laughs and says, “Oh, I don’t know. A bunch of us are from California. . .heh heh.”  As in Hint. Hint.  Don’t go there, Lady.

This doesn’t stop old lady from saying with such sharpened vitriol, “I just don’t know why somebody hasn’t SHOT that black boy yet!”

My mouth fell open.   She was so Certain we agreed. Probably proud that she had politely said ” boy” instead of the forbidden N word. I HUFFED at her, but she kept talking on and on, and all I could do was say as gently as possible, “Really! Okay, enough of that. We do NOT all agree with you. That is enough of that talk. Stop it now.” And I stormed into the kitchen, well, as fast as my recuperating body can move.

I am not coddled here;  I have experienced and witnessed acts of racism from my peers and students;  (“White people smell like wet dog” to “Oh, I can’t learn here if it’s going to be all black . .. “) BUT I had not heard anything that racist since I was a child stationed with my Dad outside of Boston. I had definitely  never heard anything that unpatriotic, that TREASONOUS in person. Ever.

How could I break bread with this woman in a few minutes and sit down later to a plate full of her cake? I did not want to ruin my sweet Mother-in-law’s dinner simply because a particular breed of bird was singing her breed’s tune. Luckily, my reaction was enough to cow the lady, who was morosely quiet during dinner, and who then skittered away soon after her last bite.

But I felt all my defense of how far we’d come in The South was just a waste of my breath. Was it? Or is she just some old lady squawking what seemed normal to her generation? SHE is why my friends come here with their defenses up; no matter how ivory tower some of my friends might be, there is always some Genteel Christian Racist to help them feel liberal.

Can Competition and Collaboration Co-exist?

Is true collaboration possible in a competitive environment?rolling

I recall a rush of articles about the American Business Model decades ago
asserting that though the foundation of capitalism was competition, as our world went global, Americans needed to examine a new model: cooperation, collaboration.

Group work? Seriously? Sure, we learned in Apollo 13 that a small group of men collaborated with an inner tube, a box and some toothpaste to bring home a space capsule of Americans. . .but how often do we really need to do that?

Group work over individual accomplishments has gone in and out of fashion in the classroom far longer than businesses have attempted it, because it cuts the grading work load by half for teachers, (though we slyly argued that it helped in student engagement, and we quoted all the business magazines about the futuristic wave of collaboration.) However, Americans notoriously have a love-hate relationship with group work; we all know that one person seems to get the brunt of the work, others resent feeling unheard by control freaks, and still others exploit riding on the backs of the workhorses. This has been sticky enough-uncomfortable and unnatural to our competitive roots-so much so that whole businesses have developed just to cash in on ridding us of our ignorance of how to behave productively in group-work situations.

And when that fails, group work in schools is discouraged, considered unfair, even sometimes called lazy. There was a point as recently as ten years ago when my own school made group work against the rules, simply because of potential law suits in “truth in grading.” (Read, Parent A didn’t want Parent B’s kid to affect or benefit from Parent A’s kid’s work/grade.) So out the door group work flew. Slowly as power changed hands in my school, people forgot it was against the rules, and it became again de rigueur, to the point where it is now the trend, not just in the classroom, but in the conference rooms among teachers, across the nation.

The American redesigned business model has finally filtered into the mandates (not just the personal preferences) of our teachers’ work lives. Instead of working in isolation, building our lessons from books, online sites, and our own creativity, we are encouraged to, in some cases forced to, meet with our colleagues and plan, even submit, lessons together on often a weekly basis.

By now, however, I question in a different way those articles of years ago: can competition and collaboration thrive together? Sure athletes can be friends with those against whom they compete, partly due to admiration, partly due to common burden, but they rarely will share their secrets to success if it means the opponent has an edge over them. Think of what the NFL goes through to make sure the opposition doesn’t get hold of their play-books. Omaha! Omaha! Omaha! Indeed.

In the education setting however, we are forced to collaborate, but then often we are held in competition. Teacher of the year? Teacher of the month? Teacher who gets verbal accolades of any kind. Those things alone might not slow us from sharing. . .but a fan base of students might. Or far worse, a conniving powerful administrator.

I have sat in collaboration groups where Teacher So and So is held up as superior. . .”The rest of you should be more like him. . .” He is notorious for not playing well with others; he balks at collaboration; he shoots holes in other people’s ideas vocally, cruelly. Okay, how much of that is arrogance?

And how much of that is trying to keep more of the praise spotlight for himself?competition

The same conniving administrator, whose job depends on students’ scores, likes to pit teachers against each other, making it seem like a friendly competition to see whose state mandated test scores will be higher. (Then administrator rewards winner with smaller class sizes, the room with a window, the course everyone covets teaching. Puppy-treats to teachers.). So then. . . why would teachers share lessons with each other if this comparison results in honor or rewards from winning? (Wouldn’t that be like Microsoft passing along tech ideas to Apple?) Recently, when someone noted how different a colleague and I are in style, I heard from conniving administrator: “Ewwww. I can’t wait to compare your AP scores. . .it will be exciting to see whose are higher.” Does this encourage my colleague to help MY students do their best?

In one weekly “team”, members were once told that another teacher, let’s call her Ms. CheaterButt, had the lowest failure rate (as in zero kids ever fail her classes; we collaborators all know she just passes kids because she doesn’t believe 9th graders should fail, even students with a 27 average days before grades are due suddenly pops out with a 70.) Then we heard we have to sit there and learn “from her” how to design our lessons because she beat us at some unseen competition called “failure rate rally race.” Again, we would have, at one point, happily shown her how to design her lessons so that she doesn’t just have to arbitrarily pass her students, and we certainly don’t want to take any of her lessons. But we won’t now. Instead, we resentfully sit quietly on top of our knowledge. . .while conniving administrator sings CheaterButt’s praises. This particular collaboration group got so competitive that the only time people shared any novel, effective ideas at the weekly meetings was when the conniving administrator occasionally appeared; suddenly we were cutting each other off at the feet to dazzle our boss.

I admit it: I am sometimes guilty of not wanting to share simply because I like being my kids’ favorite teacher. I am a natural competitor. I like having lessons students both enjoy and learn from, and yes, then silently lording it over my pals when kids want me, not them, for a teacher. Who doesn’t. This is probably the same as an actor winning the People’s Choice Award. But the trouble is, this attitude isn’t good for students. Yes, it motivates me to come up with good plans. But it keeps many of us from wanting to share lessons. I force myself to ignore my inner emotional beast because. . .well. . .it is the right thing to do. I have friends with whom I collaborate nicely, and I always have, even before it was fashionable; and I am always open to sharing with anyone, competitors and cheaters alike. But even then, the open ranking of my being “better” can cause people not to want share with me, or even hear my ideas (Oh, she thinks she is such hot shit. . .) Competition when it comes to collaboration does not necessarily lead to mature thinking. . .

In one of those popular American Business Model articles of years past, there was a story of an American Technology Company that had opened a location in Japan, hiring some of the brightest, most innovative people in the country. They were hoping to have fresh ideas, growth, etc.. The employees were set up in groups, departments, teams as they saw themselves. The company started a program, where individual employees could suggest ideas for improvement, cutting costs, enhancing productivity, design ideas. The single employee who suggested that month’s best idea, would win a dinner to a local restaurant. Months went by with not one idea in the box. The company repeatedly upped the stakes, even offering a weekend trip away, to no avail. NO ideas. Where were these Japanese brains, the American owners wondered.

Eventually the American manager heading the idea box pulled one of the Japanese managers aside and asked for his opinion. What he found was that competition among individuals of a team was considered bad form, dare I say dishonorable. To take an idea for improvement, to call it your own, to lay claim to the individual rewards was an insult to your team members, since very few of us work in a vacuum. This concept of pitting fellow employees against each other was distasteful, and went against the sense of community and family that was traditional in Japan. As soon as the company began rewarding teams, departments for successful ideas, the box was full of innovative ideas.

The lesson learned here has filtered to some of the most successful American companies today: Apple, Google, Ford, even Starbuck’s. They have all embraced collaborative thinking, and team reward to obvious results.

collabThis sticks with me as I continue to be forced to collaborate under the rule of a competition loving boss. Are children benefiting from such open individual comparisons between teachers? Is it really good for me to be Teacher-of-the-Year, “Most Inspirational Teacher”, or will it cause my peers to withhold their successful lessons from me, and thus my students. . .? Yes, I hate group work for the same reasons everyone else does: I sometimes end up writing more than my share of documents, or doing more research than others, but collaboration isn’t group work exactly. It’s idea firing. It’s sharing of what works, what can be improved. If honors, awards, titles, and even Pay-for-performance falls to individual comparisons between teachers, who will ever want to pass along effective plans? Only those with children’s best interests at heart. I’d like that to be every teacher, but it is unlikely.