The Importance of Coming Last

My (almost) ten year-old has been out-thinking and out-smarting me since he was about five. His level of self-awareness both scares the shit out of me and makes me think I’ve done a pretty kick ass job of raising someone in touch enough with their own emotions to say things like “I think I was feeling frustrated and I got upset and I took it out on you when I shouldn’t have.”

Right?

Anyway…that level of self-awareness comes hand in hand with a (sometimes too) keen sense of how others view him. The other day he had a swimming thing at school. He is…not a great swimmer. In fact, I often refer to his swimming more as ‘not drowning’ as opposed to swimming. The fact that he’s never been taught how to swim efficiently is one of my failings–a decidedly NOT kick-ass series of parenting decisions.

Anyway….he confided in me (and hey, this doesn’t go beyond you and me, right?) that he was worried about coming in last. This kid is a worrier. The older one walks through life with a natural assumption that wherever he is exactly where he is supposed to be. Not so the little one. He was worried he’d be last, that his friends would tease him, that he would be embarrassed, that his swim time would be broadcast on a billboard in Times Square, etc.

Someone’s got to be last, I said. And then we did our worst case scenario game.

What’s the worst thing that could happen? Would you lose the use of your limbs? Would we ask you to go live with another family? Would you stop having food or a house or even things you want but don’t need? Would your friends stop being friends with you? Would your teachers yell at you?

And on and on. We finally ended up at might be embarrassed. Ok, I asked, how long do you think you’d be embarrassed for? A year? Six months? A day? Ten minutes? Nod. So now count up all the minutes in your life. We’re talking about ten minutes where you might feel embarrassed. You can do ten minutes.

And we left it at that. As I turned out the light, I told him if he came in last, I’d buy him some ice cream. A last place treat.

Here’s a confession (between you and me, right?): It never occurred to me he’d come in last. He’s notoriously hard on himself. I just assumed he was exaggerating. 

“Guess what?” he said that afternoon as he trudged up the stairs.

“What?”

“I came in last.”

At first I thought he was just in it for the ice cream, trying to pull the chocolate wool over my eyes. But nope. He came dead last.

We talked. We went to the store and picked out ice cream. And here’s one of those funny parenting realizations: I was prouder of him for coming last than I would have been if he’d come in first.

It’s easy to be first. That’s not to diminish the hard work that often goes into being first, or even to minimize the natural talent that propels some to first. What I mean is that the emotions which come from winning, from being first, are easy to navigate: joy, happiness, accomplishment. We applaud them, we promote them, we teach our kids to strive for them. All good stuff.

We never encourage our kids to strive to be last, even though the emotions they must navigate by coming in last are just as important: resilience, determination, acceptance. And, in my son’s case, overcoming the anxiety of the worst case scenario that circles in his head like a boogeyman.

We do these worst case scenario exercises from time to time, usually when we’re lying in the dark together. But it’s not often his worst case scenario transpires.

So this time he got to live through his fear. He came in last. Times were written out, everyone could see he came in last. And…he got through it.

By coming in last he learned something that coming in first, or even somewhere in the middle was never going to offer. He learned that coming in last isn’t the end of the world. He didn’t give up. He pushed through the fear of failing. He learned that the things he feared the most, the niggling worries that circled his mind, didn’t happen. His friends didn’t make fun of him. Even if they had, it would have been a lesson for him. We must all learn to withstand gentle ribbing, and yes, even some not-nice teasing. Had he not placed last, those fears would have kept going round and round in his head until the next time.

And who knows, maybe he’ll place last next time too. But I’m guessing he won’t fear it as much because he survived it.

It may seem like an exaggeration to talk about kids and worst fears, but you’ve got to remember, for most of these kids, who lead lives where their biggest challenge is finding a pair of clean socks, these are their worst fears. The who and what of those fears will change. Coming in last will give way to being made fun of by classmates, being part of the rumor mill, getting rejected by a crush, not landing a job. The losses will become bigger in scope, but the lessons learned by failing, or by coming in last, are the same. The feelings you must navigate don’t change too much.**

What coming in last will teach him is that the reality of failure or loss is almost never as bad as what you imagine in your head. The monsters under the bed are never as scary when you shine a flashlight on them. Something that no matter how many times I tried to explain it, was never going to be as clear as experiencing it.

Loss, failure, they are important. It seems counter-productive, sure. As parents, none of us are out there actively encouraging our kids to fail or come in last. And yet the lessons they learn by facing down their worries and rising above them, and yes, by coming last? Sometime those are the most important lessons of all.

Plus, you know. Ice cream.

**I am by no means minimizing the devastating effect that trauma or bullying can have on kids,  but speaking of the everyday losses and failures that many children face in their day-to-day lives.

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Hear Me Roar

In honor of the anniversary of millions of women worldwide taking to the streets, this is why we march.

This is why we roar.

Wine and Cheese (Doodles)

I talk a lot (no, really, A LOT) about my passion for women’s issues. I talk a lot (A LOT) about how important it is to change the way we think about women, talk about women, and treat women. I talk a never-ending lot about systematic sexism, about reproductive rights.

But I’ve never explained why I’m passionate about these things.

I’ve never explained why I roar.

I roar because for most of my life I have been made to understand I am less than. Sometimes the message is subtle. Sometimes it is as clear as a cartoon anvil landing on your head.

The problem is, I do not feel less than. I don’t wake feeling less than. I don’t approach a situation or a problem and feel I’m unable to do, achieve, or be simply because I am a woman.

And so I roar. I roar because there is nothing

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The Forgotten American

If I read one more think piece about what constitutes a ‘real’ American, or what alphabetized or categorized or hypothesized list of attributes define a ‘real’ American, I’m going to scream.

If I read one more newspaper article, or book blurb, or journal piece by men and women with glasses and thoughtful looks in their bio pictures extolling the plight of the ‘forgotten’ American I am going to lose my shit.

If I have to listen to one more pundit, one more punter, one more pontificator blindly reaching into the ether to grasp the imaginary coattails or the slippery bootstraps of the “real” American I am going to go pull my hair out.

Look–I am not denying this truth: millions upon millions upon millions of Americans have been forgotten. By corporations and government, by their neighbors and communities, by Congress and politicians. What I am disputing is the mythical notion of the one-size fits all American. The hurtful and degrading insinuation that anything or anyone deviating from a caricature, a caricature which is now decked out in a red MAGA hat and living somewhere between the coasts is somehow…what? A fake American? Not real enough? Semi-real…like Veleeta?

Let’s not play dumb. When you hear or see the phrase “All-American”, there is a certain image which comes to mind. It’s the same image that populates these news articles and books and think pieces.

And it’s not the inner-city Detroit kid or the Hasid from Brooklyn or the teenage girl from Nebraska who’s transitioning to a teenage boy.

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The notion that rural, white Americans who are living in towns decimated by opioids or lost industry have any more claim to the title of ‘forgotten American’ than the inner city families decimated by the crack epidemic and rampant unemployment in the 1980s is preposterous. Yet one is now wearing the mantle of Americana while the other is held up as a giant American don’t. One is seen as a failure of the government and services, of trade agreements and globalization. The other?

The other was…and is…hyped as a failure of morality.

The rural American narrative sings a merry tune. Yet inner-city America (that’s fancy government code for black, by the way) is a cacophony. Only one is courted. Only one is being studied and endlessly scrutinized.

Only one of those is granted the title of American.

****

There is no such thing as a ‘real’ American. Trying to chase down some elusive, mythical one-piece will be about as successful as chasing down a Hypogriff.

It’s a fool’s errand.

*****

To be sure, there are stereotypes. Hollywoodized and memorialized in books and films and television shows.

The shy cow-poke with hair the color of Iowa wheat-fields who ‘aw shucks, ma’am’s his way through life.

The inner-city single mother who’s struggling to keep her kids off the corner.

The perfect suburban family, picket fence, whitened smiles, baseball games and apple pie on a Sunday afternoon.

But what of the ones which don’t spring easily to mind?

The naturalized immigrant who works two jobs to save enough for his daughter to go to college.

The successful black doctor who lives in the suburbs and listens to Kendrick Lamar in secret so his white neighbors don’t think he’s ‘too black’.

The drug dealer’s daughter who recognizes the only reason there’s a roof over their heads and food on the table is because of her father’s illegal activity.

The reservation-dwelling kid who fights to claw his way out of the drain of poverty.

They’re all Americans. And they’ve all been left behind in one way or another. They’ve been shoved to the margins, erased.

Forgotten.

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You can’t take away someone else’s story because it doesn’t fit the neat plot structure you’ve outlined.

Those stories are just as American. If you cut them, will they not bleed red, white, and blue?

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Try to paint American and you’re not going to get a picture, but a mosaic. Like the US itself, it’s a hodgepodge. A glorious haphazard. States were tacked on willy-nilly, here and there, a geographical mish-mash of mountainous terrain and coastline and fields of wheat-filled glory in-between. Swamplands and badlands and your land and my land and all the land in between.

There is NO one America. It’s too big. It’s too diverse, in every way imaginable. Just as there is not one American.

Yes, we’re full of stereotypes, camera snapping socks and sandal shod gun-toting chino wearing chitlin eating sweet tea drinking stereotypes. They stretch 3,000 miles across and half as many again up and down. It’s a land which encompasses indigenous tribal tradition and oral spiritual from slaves just as much as it does the heartland. It embraces co-opted foods and bastardized traditions from the steady streams of immigrants which have washed upon its shores for the past two-hundred and fifty years just as much as it does 4H fairs and VFW halls.

In reality the real forgotten Americans are the ones conveniently forgotten to be included in our definition of forgotten.

The snotty East side of Manhattan trust fund baby is just as much an American as the corn-fed blue-eyed Joe from Iowa. The California Latina and the heroin addict from Ohio. The out-of work coal-miner, the upper middle class neighbor. The dish-washer. The super-market bagger. The hedge-fund manager. The activist. The millions of children living in poverty and the millions of children living in privilege. They are all Americans.

No one person or group gets to define what makes an American.

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The immigrant who gave up her homeland to take a pledge to a country which doesn’t want her is no less of an American because she wasn’t born in the heartland or on the coast. Choosing a country, giving up the soil you first walked on, is no easy feat, regardless of what’s happening on the shores you left behind. To believe enough in a new home to give up identity, culture, homeland, family, language. It’s a witch relinquishing her familiar. And yet these are the very folks who some would consider not ‘real’ Americans. They are forgotten.

Native tribes who were shoved to the corners of the country, into dust bowls and barren lands. They are forgotten.

Black Americans, dragged here in chains against their will, still rising up against a different set of chains. They are forgotten.

Yet no one is chasing down their stories in the quest to hear from the forgotten American.

There is no litmus test. There is no purity test. There is no financial means test. The family who needs help from the government is just as American as the one who funds university libraries. There is no single set of criteria one must meet.

And so you’ll forgive me if I am weary of so many Americans forgetting about so many Americans in the search to track down the forgotten American.

 

 

 

 

Speed Equals Distance Over Time

Living far away from family does funny things to what should otherwise be a straight forward equation. Especially when it comes to speed. And aging.

Yes, I’m quite sure speed gets ramped up when you factor in long-distances and divide them by time spent with family.

I see my mother and sister twice a year. Once here, once there. It’s not ideal, but it’s more than a lot of expats get, and so for that, I’m thankful. But when family visits are limited to bi-annual hugs and semi-yearly dinners, you notice the passage of time more acutely–etched out on a loved one’s face, in the gray of their hair or the stoop of shoulders. And that’s just me.

Each and every time I face it I am slammed with the inevitability of time. And distance. And the speed at which they seem to be colliding.

Time? Time is a wall I keep trying to scale, but instead of climbing it, I keep running into it headfirst, knocking myself most of the way to unconscious.

And distance? Well, distance is the one thing in my control.

I don’t get homesick very often, not anymore, but I do miss my family. I look forward to their visits, and to mine. In my head I map out great big plans to relax. We’ll laugh and have long conversations and go for long walks! We’ll spend quality time! The kids will be gracious and happy to see their family and actually converse with them instead of retreating behind a screen anytime I leave the room!

I worry that the reality is….less than great. Or relaxing. I think I may come across as…well, for lack of a better word, grumpy. Instead of being all hunky and dory, sometimes I get snippy and snappy.

Bear with me. It took me nine long years to figure this out.

I realized I must come across as resentful. Or annoyed. Or just garden variety grumpy-pants. The truth is, there’s often an emotional orgy going on in my head, decisions battling reality–decisions which benefit US, but sometimes come at the detriment of extended family.

So when I’m being snippy, it’s sometimes because I’m fending off  the guilt that come with choosing to live far away. Sometimes when it seems like I’m short-tempered it’s because I’m trying to gauge how long can I justify keeping the grandkids away. If it seems like I’m a bit low on patience, it may just be because I’m trying to calculate how much longer I’m going to ask my mother to get on a plane for Christmas. If it seems like I’m sulky, it’s probably because I’m trying to remember the formula to figure out how time speeds up when there’s a greater distance involved.

I think my brain switches into efficiency mode due to overload. And efficiency mode? Well, everything gets done, but sometimes at the expense of emotion. AI’s got nothing on me when I switch over to efficiency mode. Just ask my husband.

Sure, there’s Skype and FaceTime, and it definitely helps, but expats know that E.T. was right: phoning home is really just a substitute for being there.

Then the trips are over. Bags are packed, flights checked-in on, passports stamped. It takes me a few weeks to recalibrate my emotions, to pack them all back into the neat boxes they live in. I get caught up in day-to-day dramas and hourly ados and I’ll sit down to put my feet up and suddenly it’s Sunday, or summer or six months later. And I gear up to do the whole thing all over again.

I’m in the midst of all that now. Long enough removed from the family visit to be able to take a step backward and say “Ah! Of course that’s why I was such a miserable Mabel, because I worry about how our choice to live away affects you. And you’re getting older. And I’m getting older. And the kids are getting older. And oh, my God, for the love of all that’s holy make it stop.”

Eventually I guess the scales will tip one way, or another. But there are few weeks a year when they swing wildly from one side to another, bouncing up and down.

Every time I watch my mother say goodbye to my kids something small inside me dies. Like that flower in ET, the one that wilts and falters. But…. I also know this. You know the final scene of ET? The one when Eliot is crying and Gertie has snot running down her face and ET is about to get on his spaceship? He touches his light-up heart, then points his long, wrinkly finger at Eliot’s head and says…”I’ll be right here.”

It doesn’t matter what the formula is for calculating distance, or speed, or even time. Because that’s where we are.

We’ll be right here.