Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Parenting in the Nethers

As we stand in the middle of Barnes and Noble I’m torn. I told him that he could pick out a book and the one that he’s selected is about Minecraft. That, in and of itself doesn’t necessarily bother me. But this particular Minecraft guide is about combat. That is quite literally the title. Something about combat best practices. I recoil in horror and snap at him in a way that is an intensely disproportionate reaction to an eight year old just wanting to buy a book about a video game he likes. Inside, I begin to hold deeply irrational conversations with myself.

Is this how it starts, I wonder? Is this where it began with Adam Lanza? I know there was more, trips to the shooting range and increased isolation. I know there was more to his story. But at one point, he was just her little boy, right? How did it all start? How does it ever?

He’s arguing hard for the book now and I wonder if I should waver – it is just a book after all. But I hate it. I hate all of it. I hate the idea of violence as play and they know that. I hate the sound of mock shooting and their dimpled fingers drawn which they do with no knowledge at all of how real and terrifying it is to the adults that just seem to swim in new bloodshed each and every day. I feel the insides of my stomach twist up and knot. How do I walk this line between giving him the space I know he needs to explore these games and telling him that there is nothing playful about pretending to kill someone. Anyone. Ever. Killing is not child’s play.

There are two parts to Minecraft: a creative side that is largely about building cool stuff, and a survival mode that is about defending your world and killing angry mobs. It is this survival mode that terrifies me, the way the bad guys descend on you at night and the way you must be ready to kill or be killed. As I replay the morning’s news and faces from Orlando in my head, I wonder how different real life is from all of these games anyway.

I shift his attention quickly to lunch at a nearby restaurant that features an old school Pac Man game which is a major draw for the kids. My son in particular loves it, and I long for the old school video games where monsters were candy colored ghosts that could be eaten. We spend much of lunch talking old school Atari like Frogger and Donkey Kong and I get that wistful look in my eyes that my father used to get when he would think about drive in movies and sing Pete Seeger. I realize how old I must sound. I also realize how much infinitely more idyllic and safe my own childhood was in comparison to my own children’s formative years which seems to just take that knot that formed in my stomach in Barnes and Noble a half hour earlier, and set it on fire.

I want to understand it, all of it, genuinely. I find myself googling things like how do you kill an enderman and happen upon a site that includes a very neat 11 step process. It includes things like:

1.       Get your weapon

2.       Do not look in his eyes

3.       Hide

4.       Eat first and bring food with you in case you get hungry

5.       Go with a full heart

6.       Bring a buddy, because this will make it easier to kill mobs.

I feel a lump of something grow in the back of my throat and swallow my heart. It is so methodical which is appropriate for a video game. But yet maybe I’m also teaching him that violence can be this detached process that can be playful and game like and that’s wrong. I am completely at war with myself as I assume some sort of split parenting personality, one part of me wishing for him to fit in and not overthink it because it is what all the other kids do. The other part of me wanting to draw a sharp line where all of it never becomes okay, the way it’s not okay out there in the nethers of Orlando or Sandy Hook. That it will never be okay in here in the nethers of our basement based video game lair.

So I ask him, why do you like it so much? Why not just stay on the creative side of the game? What is appealing about the survival side? I need to remind him that no matter how playfully it is depicted, killing always ends with someone or something dying. There is a horrifying finality to it. One that video games in particular grossly distort when it portrays this kind of violence as both a winnable and reversible feature.

He describes how terrible the creepers and enderdragons are, and the way the mobs descend on your creations and worlds when night falls. He talks at length about what it feels like to finally destroy them.

“Pride,” he says. “That’s what I feel when I finally defeat the bad guys.” I close my eyes and picture Senator Murphy’s filibuster, the sit in on the House floor. I can relate perfectly to what he is saying.

Later that night, no one is more surprised than me to find myself cruising Amazon in search of Minecraft fan fiction. This is my chance to squash this moment but instead I’m encouraging him to learn more about the game, to pursue more battles and swords. As I navigate this minefield of both actual and virtual complex emotions and violence, I am struck by how much modern day parenting feels like we are all perpetually operating in survival mode.

Perhaps if I am honest with him about how difficult and scary all of it really is, I can keep us safe until morning comes again.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Do You Like Me?

This morning I was part of another discussion on social media among friends and family members gauging the likeability of Hillary Clinton and the relative importance of likeability when voting. I couldn’t discount that voters would likely consider it when making their choice. But I argued that I did not believe there was a correlation between likeability and effectiveness. But the whole conversation continued on surely longer than it should’ve about whether or not we’d go to a Hillary barbeque and honestly all of it was just ridiculous. But it stayed with me, the whole thing. And I couldn’t stop thinking about her. But the “her” wasn’t Hillary. It was my Ruby.

She’s wrapping up Kindergarten now and she’s honestly amazing. I say all the time that I truly have never encountered anyone on God’s green earth like Ruby. If you meet her, I know you will agree. The first time she met her teacher back in August, she did some sort of twerking type of dance. She dry heaves from cottage cheese. She sings Flo Rida in the shower. When her soccer team was trying to think of a name for themselves, she was the only one to suggest the John Cenas (they went with the purple power). Her hair is a color that seems to be made up of twenty different colors. It is not one that I have ever seen in nature. It is thick and curly and spectacular. Much like Ruby herself, it seems to be in its own orbit. She plays often with the boys at recess. She likes to see who can run the fastest. Sometimes when she beats one and she smiles, they accuse her of bragging.
It’s really tricky you know. She is inheriting so much trickiness at such a young age. Because she is a girl, she should be humble, not proud.

I make her where those special shorts under her dresses so that when she flips upside down at recess as I am certain she will do that others will not see her underpants. I know she doesn’t care. They are pretty underpants – white with blue hearts and pink piping. But even at six I am teaching her to be careful and cautious. To hide herself away not because she cares, but because she has to worry about what other people will think or see or do. She has to prioritize other people’s needs over her desire to flip and jump and spin with abandon. All of it sucks.

Sometimes I watch her carefully on the soccer field and am so amazed. She is a force, running up and down that field in relentless pursuit of the ball. But she is different from many of the girls. They all have those perfectly straight long blonde pony tails and long skinny brown legs. She is curves. My curves. Rounded, with my soft belly. Strong, active, talented, but never straight. Not once does she approach anything in life like a straight line.

Life for Ruby I suspect will be exactly like her hair which we battle with each night, trying to find the perfect amount of conditioner and spray that will finally allow us to get a comb through without an epic cry fest from both of us. In the morning, she brushes it relentlessly because she wants it to be smooth. I know she is wondering, is this how I can fit in? For this, no amount of brushing will do. For the really special ones like you my sweet Ruby, smooth must never be the goal.

Mean girl stuff starts as early as possible now, even in Kindergarten. She hasn’t experienced too much of it yet, but I know what’s coming for her. I know that she is not like the other girls. I know that she is not like anyone else on this planet really. In this way I wonder, will this make her unlikeable?

It is bizarre to me that I wonder this about Ruby. It is something I almost never consider when it comes to Dylan because he is a boy. Boys fight and settle their differences and move on. They care less about the dirt on their shirt or under their nails. They settle almost everything in the gaga pit. There is a physicality to almost all of their relationships that serves as the great equalizer. I am frustrated for her that she can’t settle her future battles this way. Instead of being praised for her aggression and serving the final blow in wall ball or gaga, she’ll come home crying because her hair wasn’t smooth enough. Her legs weren’t straight enough. It all wasn’t enough.
And then she’ll be this island. More physical and smart and beautiful then anyone or anything I’ve ever encountered yet equally sure that if she stands up and owns any of it, she’ll be boasting. She’ll be obnoxious. She’ll be unlikeable.

Ugh, she’s bragging.

What a bitch.

I can’t stand her.

Likeability is the ultimate smear for women. No matter how much they accomplish, no matter how many awards they win, offices they hold, how fast they run, no matter how pretty their hair looks, it is the ultimate way that we destroy the last shreds of their dignity.

Frankly, I just don’t like you.
What can you say to that? Nothing.

There is no retort to that. There is no way to out logic that.

It just sucks.

I’ve seen the old pictures of Hillary. I’ve seen those big glasses. She was never going to be Melania or even those pretty Gore girls with their long straight hair. She was going to be awkward. And freakishly smart. She was going to work her ass off. She was going to get it done. She was going to win every award. But maybe they still weren’t going to invite her to the barbeque. Ugh.

It might not be today. Maybe it won’t even be tomorrow. But soon she is going to be the first women ever nominated for president of the United States by a major party. I hope that whether you like her or not, you pause to reflect on the historical significance of that moment with your daughters.

I know I’m going to be showing it to mine. I’m going to tell her, you see that smile? That’s not bragging. She earned that.  
I will show her that maybe, just finally in 2016, we have managed to set bigger goals for our girls than smooth hair and being liked. I will show her that here, now, there is so much more possible for her to inherit.