The Steubenville Lesson

Dear Son,

Just some things you should know.

No means no.
Silence means no.
Incoherent mumbling should translate to no.

Any questions?

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To Win or Not to Win?

It’s that time of year. Super Bowls and Grammys and Oscars. It’s time to dole out the golden idols. So if winning is so important and so widely celebrated, why do we as parents, coaches and teachers insist it isn’t?

Enter the Pinewood Derby. That rite of passage when dads everywhere sit down to allegedly help their sons make a car-like shape out of a wood block only to shoo the boys away at any chance of their “help”. This might be the most tearful event of the year, both on and off the track. Where leaders encourage everyone to do their best– participation is what it is all about! (And please pay no attention to the trophies behind the curtain.) Welcome to the new manhood, son, where all visual cues point to competition and the reward of winning, but where we will tell you that none of it matters. Just have fun. STOP CRYING AND HAVE FUN, GODDAMMIT!

Here’s the thing: I’m really proud of you for winning a trophy. In fact, I was ecstatic that the car you made (read: kit you selected and we purchased) went on to garner the votes needed for “most artistic car”. I thought we were going to have a serious meltdown when your car CAME IN LAST EVERY SINGLE TIME. I don’t know how to express to you my guilt and disappointment at not having slaved away at that pine block with 500 grit sandpaper, or gorilla glued half the piggy bank to the chassis. I don’t know how this car building is even appropriate for a first grader. I feel like I’m just beginning to trust you with wiping your ass completely; there’s no way you could tackle a project like this even with your engineering father, much less on your own. (Just because he has a degree in ME doesn’t mean he can figure it out-remember the heartache at the Rain Gutter Regatta? Exactly.) And you wanted to celebrate your birthday instead of staying home stabbing yourself with an exacto-knife. So really, my inability to help and your age deficiency has paid off, because we were forced to buy the kit. Anyhow, way to go picking that transfer, because we both know the paint would NEVER have dried in time for weigh in. I would also like to commend you on your patience with your father. I know it’s not easy to work with him. (Again I cite the Rain Gutter Regatta) So despite your not having won any heats, your pack held a vote for “best of” in several categories, and with trophies to boot. And for that I am grateful. Because “coolest looking boat” wasn’t an option earlier this year (the Rain Gutter Regatta is the bane of my existence at this point).

I also feel I owe you an apology for not letting you celebrate your win. This is part of that confusion, where people give you a trophy and then tell you it doesn’t actually mean anything. When the pack leader handed you that trophy, you should have been able to take it and keep that smile plastered to your face. You should have been able to run over to your friend and show him how proud you were, how excited you were. But you couldn’t because your mom blew it. I wouldn’t let you, because I was too worried about 40 other boys’ feelings. Somehow in the last seven years, I have let the projected typical American parent reaction dictate how I instruct you. And for this I am deeply sorry. What I should have done was to say, “Alec, go show off your trophy. Just try not to be a douche about it. Remember how you felt at the (all together now) Rain Gutter Regatta!” Instead I took the trophy from you and smuggled it away in my purse. It didn’t matter that they had announced it on the microphone, but somehow I thought the right thing to do was to act like it hadn’t happened. But it did. That was the whole point to the day. To race, to win, to lose, to learn. I just wish we could cut the bullshit and say, you know what, it feels really good to win. But just keep in mind that winning doesn’t make you an awesome person and losing doesn’t actually make you a loser.

So then,  is winning still important? We seem to value it as a society. We hold competitions all the time. On television shows: American Idol, The Bachelor, The Apprentice (is that still on?), Biggest Loser (that may be confusing for you, it’s about winning at losing), and for the European crowd, Eurovision (how else would we have Abba?). In sports: Super Bowl, NBA championships, World Series (I have a hard time with use of world here), the Olympics (ask your daddy about trying out for those).  In academics: National Merit Finalists, college scholarships, valedictorian. This is just a smattering. Life is a competition-for jobs, for love, for reproduction even. So what now?

I think it a bit confusing, all this talk of winning not mattering and then having trophies handed out. I’m not going to tell you that winning doesn’t matter. Because I think it does, at times. And that’s something you’ve got to learn in your own time. I think it’s important to make good grades and produce good work. Your name is on that spelling test, and if you’re capable of studying and spelling the words correctly, well, then, you should do it. You should strive to get that A. If you are capable of skating down the ice and slapping the biscuit in the goal, well, I want to cheer you on. If you feel it’s more important to defend your goal, and if you are better at that, than I want you to do that proudly and confidently, with winning in mind. Because no one comes to the game wanting to lose. That’s bullshit and any parent, coach or teacher who tells you that is so steeped in magical thinking they’ve got their head up a unicorn’s ass. I think it a disservice to tell you that it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game. I’m not completely sold on this. If we felt this way we wouldn’t keep score. (Oh wait, that’s right, we’re not keeping score, fellow parents! Then why do we even have a goal/basket/endzone?) As an adult I may feel this way, because I’ve done both: won and lost. When it comes to sports, I’ve had my time on several teams: I’ve won and lost tournaments. I’ve won the lead in the play, and I’ve also been cast as an extra. I made it to round two of the selection for MTV’s Real World and I didn’t make it past the first judges on American Idol (I have a bit of an embarrassing past. We’ll discuss this AT NO TIME EVER.) I was 1 of 20 to beat out 600 other people for that big scholarship to college. So yes, winning does matter. It can change your life. But it shouldn’t change who you are as a person. And this is something you will learn. Winning modestly may be just as important as losing gracefully. God bless you, son, you have so much to learn and so much pressure on you, most of it coming from your own mother. So next time you lose, know it’s all right to cry. Bravely seek out your opponent and shake his or her hand. And well, if the next time you win a trophy, just enjoy it, and say, “Thank you. I did my best.” And that my boy means all the world to me.

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First Grade: Don’t Screw It Up

So first grade. Why is it important? Well, like your father said earlier today, you’ve got to go to school if you don’t want to end up flipping burgers at McDonald’s. True, but in today’s current economic climate, you could very well end up flipping burgers even after finishing your Bachelor’s. If I had to work, I’d be lucky to make minimum wage (Avoid liberal arts. This is another conversation). Anyhow, school is important, no matter the end game. An education opens doors and opens your mind. Hopefully you’re being taught by someone who has half a brain (which is why we are living in this affluent neighborhood and paying taxes that make me choke. Haven’t you noticed mommy isn’t getting her nails done anymore?) and keeps you from being stupid (in theory). This last bit is important-the source of the education cannot be just anyone! This should be apparent to you by now-afterall, we are living in southwest Pennsylvania.  I would prefer your teachers not come from the pool of those with mullets, those that wear their fucking “Stiller” jerseys to Church and the people who say “these ones”. This bit is essential as you move into puberty and you will be receiving sex education. But we will most likely be abroad yet again, so let’s pray it’s Europe and we can wash the puritanical American off you.

Where was I? Right, first grade. It’s kind of a blur for me. I can clearly remember  second grade with Egghead. Her real name was Mrs. Jones, but she had a beehive that was colossal, even for Texas standards. That bitch isolated me at my own table for telling on Brian What’s-His-Face for cussing. I sat at that fucking table for a week. By myself. In the middle of the room. It was coming up on Christmas, and I told my mom that the decorated miniature tannenbaum I shared the table with was my only friend. Needless to say, I started private school after the break.

So, if you get a difficult teacher, well, your life will be hell. But you can do anything for nine months, right? These are the experiences that are character building, and quite frankly we don’t have the money right now to yank your ass out and put you into private school. And I’m not going back to work just to have to quit once we move again. (We’re not moving anytime soon. That conversation about Angola was just for fun. Please stop crying.)

I do remember kissing Brian Murphy in first grade though, so not all has been lost up there. And I remember large numbers of kids in something called an open classroom. And flashes of math lessons that consisted of pie divided into pieces and colored in with chalk. And recess with concrete tunnels and those spider jungle gym thingies pretending I was an ewok alongside Amanda with the big, bushy, blonde hair. That’s the extent of it. Let’s hope you retain a bit more than I did.

Speaking of ewoks, Star Wars is still in vogue, which is amazing, even though you have no idea what an ewok is. We should remedy that this year. You need to watch Star Wars. I say we pick Thanksgiving weekend for a marathon. Your little brother looks a bit like Chewbacca with those eyebrows of his. There is definitely manscaping in his future.

And as far as kissing anyone goes, it looks like that’s not quite on your radar which is a relief for me. You’ve got plenty of time for that. I’d like to perhaps vet your choices based on their mothers-I don’t want some crazy woman freaking out on me cause you laid one on her little girl. Something tells me though you only have eyes for Senorita B, the Spanish teacher. Good man. The foreign women can teach you a lot.

And let’s stay out of the principal’s office, ‘mkay? I know you told the boy five times to get out of your face, and when that didn’t work elbowing seemed like a reasonable way to help him with that objective, but this is not going to win you points. I get it-I’d like to elbow other people when they get in my face, and I’d like to say that we don’t resort to this because we are a civilized people, but really it’s because other people pack around these parts and we should probably try not to provoke the hillbillies. I encourage you to take a deep breath and count to ten. This is what I do when I want to beat the shit out of you. Do it with me. Smell the flowers….pop the bubble.

Now go forth, buckle down, and learn your short and long vowels.

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The Manifesto

All right, son. It’s time we had a talk.

You see, I’m a bit worried about croaking prematurely, without having imparted to you my wisdom about life (I don’t really think I have much, but some is better than none). I’m not sick, I don’t have cancer, I don’t live hard and fast, but I do worry about leaving you without me. You’ll understand when you’re a parent. Or maybe you won’t. Your father doesn’t think about things like that because it’s a waste of time and energy and would make him sad. Why would you think constantly of something that made you sad? Inefficient, he might say. Anyhow, it does no good to think of all the things you need to know and not write them down.  And I’m mainly thinking of you, but Jamie too. You both need this information, but because you are six, Alexandre, you need it a bit sooner. So if it feels like this is all directed at you, well, it is. I’m hoping that with the information you will receive we can accomplish a few things

1. Not turn you into a douche

This might be a challenge, and may be completely out of your hands due to genetic makeup. Your father is French and you’ve lived in Europe already. You drink San Pellegrino (great article on this and other douche-related activities in GQ I believe a few years back) and own a corduroy blazer.

2. Keep you from living in our basement at the age of 30

Not majoring in English can help you avoid this.

3. Teach you how to defend yourself against assholes.

4. Encourage you to treat the ladies well

While this is important, it’s good to have a healthy fear of girls at this age. There’s nothing crueler than a middle class white girl-except for maybe an upper class one. You were correct today when you said girls are harmful. Keep your cootie shot current. That’s something we do in American school.

5. Foster sensitivity without making you a pussy.

6. Turn you into a gentleman.

7. Work on your education while you receive your education

These are two separate concepts, and can be mutually exclusive. Refer to the French terms education and formation. Education refers to what I am trying to do with you here-it is my job to form you at home. Malélévé, or badly bred, is not a term I will suffer. Formation is the formal education you will receive at school. You will notice many of the people we encounter on a daily basis have not received an education.

I’m sure this list will grow, but these are my main talking points.

Now, you may think my use of the words “douche” and “pussy” are a bit harsh, but look, man, you’re entering into first grade in an American public school. It’s not the idyllic utopia you experienced in Norway at your French school. The toilets at Rene Cassin had no doors. Can you imagine taking a leak in front of some these hooligans? Well I guess you can, you have urinals. Can you imagine taking a dump in front of some of these hooligans? This is not your kinder, gentler academic environment. So we’ve got to prepare you. This is the hard part. I want to nurture your arrogant, yet innocent, cultured French side of you without making you a complete laughingstock.  I know the “pajama incident” that occurred on the soccer field wasn’t any fun. That was my fault. I will no longer dress you in tight fitting Euro-style shirts that garner comments of “pajama boy”.  And I moved any t-shirts with even a touch of pink to the “too small” boxes, right? And we only purchased board shorts for the pool this year, now that we’re stateside.  The pink thing will be okay once you’re older. But I’d lay off the H&M swimsuits for the rest of your life.

We’ve got our challenges ahead of us, but I think you’re off to a good start. I don’t see you as an adult that will still be living with mom and dad when you’re sexually active, but hey, you never know. And I can’t imagine that those who do sleep next door to their parents are getting laid anyhow. That’s something to keep in mind. Asexual (hetero-, homo- or bi-: any of these prefixes are acceptable to us) is not a trait that’s attractive to anyone. In order to keep this from happening, you have to be a healthy, active boy, I believe. I’ll secretly keep score at your soccer games, not freak out if you get hit and hit back, and will not stop you from playing with pretend guns. To prevent any of this would be emasculating, and perhaps what is wrong with our twenty-something youths today. Their testosterone has been stifled, only to release their frustrations with a semi-automatic on a school. No, I do not have a psychology degree, but that won’t stop me from making completely uneducated guesses as to why people act a certain way. And before you decide to major in Psychology without going for a PhD or M.D., please recall my earlier comment about an English major. I am hoping that in encouraging you to be a boy, we can also take care of item number three on our list. While I don’t want to raise you to be a bully, you do have to learn to defend yourself, the women in your life and to a lesser extent your buddies.  This may be especially important since your father left me to wield a baseball bat solo while he hid upstairs during a weekend house sitting in South Dallas. To employ a well-worn phrase, this was decidedly “not cool”. I know, I know, your father was a world-class hammer thrower in his youth. Small and weak are not words used to describe him. They don’t even describe his bowel movements. Well, he’s a lover not a fighter, honey.

And he treats me well (despite the lack of physical manifestations of protection). In fact, he treats all women well (and not the way your neighbor does. That’s called adultery.), which is something we will have to instruct you to do. Now, I haven’t completely decided how to do this, because I don’t want to make you a cuckold later on in life, and I know that little girls can be devious little bitches. We will take your enlightenment one step at a time, but you seem to at least know how to talk to, and dress for, the older woman. This I will have to keep an eye on (when you learn how to google, please search for Mary Kay Letourneau. She’s an oldie but goodie.)  So far though, I am pleased with what I see. I’ll never forget that scene of you in Texas, on the playground at age four, when you chased that snot-nosed eight-year old down and told him to keep his hands off the girl he was harassing. ‘Atta boy.

Now. The whole not making you a pussy bit. This kind of goes hand in hand with number three and number one. I love that you are a sensitive little boy who is affected by others’ happiness and sadness. But we’ve got to keep you from turning into the son of a peanut mom. Now, fortunately you’ve got no food allergies, only a severe cat allergy that requires breathing treatments for long exposure. But you toughed out that whole experience, and never once complained, so I think we are on the right track. And you’re a dog person anyhow-who needs cats? You’re also the kind of kid that likes some physical contact-an arm around the shoulders, a pat on the back at the baseball game, a high five at appropriate sports moments. But I may have to limit your hugging to close friends, and the kiss-on-the-cheeks move is certainly off limits during our stay on this side of the pond. Nothing wrong with a handshake, boy. You are a native Texan: a handshake is also a man’s word. This is a valuable lesson that will help as you turn into a little gentleman.

And a gentleman you will be, if I have anything to say about it, which I do (the whole point of me writing all of this down.). This requires good manners, please and thank you, not picking your nose in public (which gratefully you do not do, public or otherwise), limiting your belching to contests with your friends, putting both ass cheeks on the seat while eating at the table (why is this so hard?), using a napkin instead of your shirt collar (we’ve moved up in the world, it used to be your sleeve), opening doors, speaking politely to the elderly population, etc., etc. We will be working on all of this “education” at home while you get your reading, writing and arithmetic during the school day. It’s a lot of work, I know, but just think, I’m the one responsible for teaching it to you (and of course your father, too) so imagine the kind of responsibility I have.  Seriously. I’ve got to figure out how NOT to fuck you up. Now go out and get some fresh air. And pee on a tree while you’re at it.

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