Men, Women, and Chivalry

I’m reading a captivating book right now called Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty. I plan to review this next week so for now I’ll just say briefly that it’s a mystery/suspense tale about an accomplished 50-something woman who finds herself on trial as an accomplice to a murder.

More than just a mystery, though, Apple Tree Yard is about what it means to be a woman – a successful woman – especially at midlife. How independent and strong are we, and how much do we need from our men? More specifically, this is a story about crimes against women, and here I define crime broadly whether it is infidelity, estrangement, professional intimidation, rape, or physical abuse. And most strikingly, it is a story told in the context of husbands and sons and colleagues and lovers.

Reading the book I started to think about the role of protection in our partnerships with men. For women in heterosexual relationships, how much do we expect to be protected? How much responsibility are we placing on our men to shield and guard us and to be our shelter?

The protagonist, Yvonne, becomes the victim of a crime but she doesn’t tell her husband or her closest girlfriend. Instead, she tells the lover with whom she has recently started an affair. She calls him every time she feels unsafe or whenever something triggers a painful memory, and he responds as any protective man would – by listening, yes, but also by offering more physical and concrete protection.

I couldn’t help putting myself in Yvonne’s position. I know whom I would go to if anything like that ever happened to me. Even without making the mental effort I immediately visualized the scene. I would be crying, maybe hyperventilating, and I would need to be enveloped inside the protection of my husband. I am grateful that I have someone whom I can collapse into in this way.

Do we still expect chivalry from the men in our lives? For all my independence and earning power, there is a significant part of me that is very dependent on Max. I feel lost when he’s away. I feel safer when he is driving. I’m more comforted when he’s sleeping beside me. Though we are equals as parents and business partners, that quieter, more invisible side of me feels like a little girl sometimes, not unlike the way I felt around my parents growing up. A girlfriend once attributed this to my lack of independence until I reminded her that I had once moved to a foreign country on my own and have pretty much steered my own life since childhood and made my own money since junior high. No, it is not that. It is not about being weak. I want to think that it is about love, and it is about being a woman in the sense that, as equal as we may be in brains or capability, we will always be more vulnerable physically.

In the end, I know that love brings out our most basic instincts to protect whether we are women or men. Women, with their maternal instincts, are fierce in this sense. I have seen this in myself. Seeing my child get hurt unjustly has brought out an assertiveness in me that I never before exercised. And in quieter, more unseen ways, in the absence of any real danger, I have been protective of my husband as well. It happens in the way I speak about him to others and in the way I implore him about things like driving too fast or running when it’s too hot. It happens every time I move on from a fight and put things behind me. It happens each day that we are together and I commit to loving him. While love motivates us to protect, it is also love – ordinary, unheroic – that is our protection, the shield of security that envelopes us.

Image courtesy https://i1.wp.com/i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01813/englishpatient_1813424i.jpg

My heart swells every time I watch this scene: Count Laszlo de Almásy walks 3 days to try and get help for the dying Katharine Clifton in The English Patient. Image Courtesy: i.telegraph.co.uk

 

Understanding, accepting, and appreciating the language of husbands and fathers

When Fred was a baby I became more aware of how some (many) women often corrected the way their husbands parented: they didn’t like the way they diapered, bathed, dressed, fed, or played with their babies. Around the house, too, I would see it. One husband-friend of mine once shook his head after being criticized by his wife and said to me, “See? I’m afraid to do anything. And she wonders why I don’t help more.”

I didn’t really go through that, because Max was actually better with babies than I was and he is often better around the house as well.

But I had my one area of “expertise,” and that was the emotional rearing of our child. On this I was convinced that I was better. I grew up with and was influenced by a mother who, while critical, almost never raised her voice. She never shouted, never punished, and never talked down to my brother and me. For better or worse, she spoke to us almost as equals. This was in sharp contrast to many of the other Chinese mothers and caretakers I knew. I had one extreme daycare teacher shout at us, “Shut up or I’ll chop your heads off!” I was told that this was how people talked “back home” (back in the villages of China).

For years I corrected Max on this aspect of parenting. He, like all parents, came into parenting with the experiences he knew growing up in his family and in his culture and his style, I felt, was a little too Asian and old school for my tastes. And so for years we talked, fought, and cried over this. Finally, nearly ten years later, we are pretty much on the same page. I think it is our greatest achievement as a couple.

Then a few weeks ago I found myself repeating something I’d promised I’d try my best not to do: correct Max in front of Fred. It was a knee-jerk reaction and the words came out before I knew what I was doing. Max and Fred were butting heads on something and I didn’t like the way Max was handling the situation.

Max was furious with me and walked off to his office, so I emailed him. (I know it sounds odd but we email when we’re mad (it’s better than us screaming).) He wrote back that he and Fred have their own relationship and that they are doing fine without my stepping in to complicate things.

Maybe that should’ve been obvious, but it was the first time I really saw and understood that. Sometimes I would cringe or “tsk tsk” at the way Max talks to Fred – the teasing, the gruffness. It’s not abuse or humiliation, just different from how I would talk to Fred. Then I realized that different in this case perhaps simply means “male” or just “different” rather than “wrong.” I relate to my child as a woman does: I nurture, soothe, validate. Max, too, is very affectionate and tender with Fred, but he is not me and he has his own style. And the thing I haven’t allowed myself to see is, I do screw up, a lot. As “expert” as I am on all of this, it’s textbook smarts and I over-personalize parenting and stress out and criticize and even a decade later I am no better at this gig than I was when I first gave birth. Children keep changing and the only thing I can count on is my determination to keep understanding my child and to understand myself better through that experience. I know I need to give Max this chance too. So I  accepted that I have to let go…and let them build their father-son bond, a bond that is as unique and necessary as the bond that I have with Fred.

Yesterday they had another minor episode. I was in another room so I don’t really know what happened, only that Fred showed attitude and Max got angry. But I minded my own business and trusted that Max would be able to handle it fine and I went out to run errands. When I finished an hour later, I walked into a house filled with the cacophony of two recorders playing Mary Had a Little Lamb. Instead of working (we work from home), Max had joined Fred to practice the recorder. Later after dinner, the two belted out When the Saints Go Marching In over and over, doing their best renditions of Louis Armstrong. And then closing their finale they mooned me. They nearly fell to the floor laughing so hard while I just sat in my chair rolling my eyes…and inside falling more in love with the two of them.

Men, boys. Fathers and sons. They’re foreign to me sometimes, but the joy and the love – I get that.

Onlyoublog_fs

On 2013 reading (or any) challenges: Give up or make a final push?

Due to a (ahem) mathematical error I committed myself to reading 50 books this year. It’s not a small goal for me, especially since I apparently only read 10 books the year before.

I started 2013 with a bang and at one point was several books ahead of schedule. Then since the summer it’s been all downhill.

Screen Shot 2013-11-04 at 12.34.02 PM

Now, I’ve tried to play with this a little, by taking the total number of pages read (conveniently calculated for you by Goodreads) and dividing it by 300 (pages), my personal definition of what constitutes one book. When I do that I come out slightly ahead at 37 books (thank you, East of Eden and The Book Thief).

Well, a couple of weeks ago I was 15 books behind even with the manipulation of page numbers, and I was pretty much ready to give up even trying. It’s sort of like watching those final few minutes of a basketball game where a team is behind 5 or 6 points and there are 2 minutes left on the clock. Some teams will still scramble for I don’t know what, while other teams will give up and end up further behind in a pathetic display of utter hopelessness. I have to say I can relate to the latter.

Then I posed the question to my 9-year-old, who blazes through several tomes of Rick Riordan a month: “What should I do?”

His response: “Of course you should go for it!”

I was thinking that I am entering the busiest part of my work season and the majority of my books are 300 pages or longer, not to mention that I am only doing this for myself and none of it is even required.

“At least TRY and get as close to 50 as you can. You’ll feel really good satisfaction if you can get near 50.”

Why did it not occur to me that I could at least shoot for 48 or 45 or something? Anything in the forties would signify an achievement. And did I forget how exhilarating it can feel to “win”? Actually, the answer would be yes…I think it’s been several years since I “achieved” anything (my first publication) but that’s another story for another time.

“Pick good, short books. That’s what I would do.”

Seriously, I should consult with my child more often on life matters.

That evening, I went through my shelves and picked out the slimmest books I have. I’d like to think that this is not cheating, because all the books on my shelves are books on my to-read list; I’m just relying on my crunch players right now, and benching Leo Tolstoy and the like until next year. My end-of-the-year contenders include:

Memory: A Novel, by Philippe Grimbert

Holidays on Ice, by David Sedaris

Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri

A Separate Peace, by John Knowles

The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

All My Darling Daughters [manga], by Fumi Yoshinaga

The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brene Brown

Darkness Visible, by William Styron

Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott

These, added to my current reads, should get me close to 50.

So how do I actually get all of this accomplished? My boy says,

“I think you should only spend 60 minutes on your blog. Whatever time you usually spend over that should go into reading.”

And,

“You spend too much time on Facebook. Cut that time down to 40 minutes a day…no, 30 minutes. Thirty minutes at most, and use the rest of the time to read.”

Indeed, I waste a lot of time on the internet. That is why I often don’t start reading until 11 at night, at which point it takes me two minutes to read the same sentence five times.

When I first poked around at all these various reading challenges I noticed how nice everyone was about it. “50 is simply a goal; of course how much you end up reading is up to you.” It’s nice and understanding and forgiving, but it also lets me off the hook too easily. I’m thinking that if I set a goal, I should do what I can to attain it. I won’t kill myself over it – it’s not like my career or my future is resting on the number of books I complete this year – but by definition a challenge isn’t supposed to be easy, and it’s supposed to be more than what I can normally do comfortably. I will push myself, precisely because this is just for me.

How are you doing on your reading or other challenges? How do you motivate yourself to reach your personal goals?

The quiet of growing up

As if I needed any more reason not to clean…

On Friday I cleaned out my closet, a catch-all storage over the last half year for everything from clothes to bags to Fred’s toys when I needed to take them away from him. Within the first five minutes of entering this black hole I found the following “interview” I had taken in my notebook three-and-a-half years ago, shortly after Fred had turned six. Funny how I had thought nothing of his words then.

While reading it Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World also happened to be playing on Pandora and within a couple of minutes I had to switch the station. It was too much. (If you want the full effect you can click on the link above and listen to the song while reading my post, though I will totally understand if you are not awash in the same nostalgia and bittersweet melancholy that I was.)

Things I’ve Learned Now That I’m 6 [by Fred, and dictated by Mom]

Bugs don’t live that long.

This is something that I knew when I was 5: The earth spins around and around and around.

People make books.

Some people are strong, some people are smart.

Some babies write on books for the library or something.

Babies don’t know ABCs until they read a book on ABCs.

My dad can go fast.

Dads can read books.

My dad can do origami.

The grown-ups cook and the kids eat.

It’s not good to fight.

I love my mom and dad.

It’s not good to lie.

5 x 5 = 20.

6 x 2 = 12.

9 x 2 = 18.

If you use a magnifying glass, you can see bugs very well.

The sun is very hot. You would not want to live on the sun.

Making things makes your bones strong.

You can get hurt when you play a sport.

Some bugs like wet.

Flowers or any kind of plants die if you don’t water it. Almost everybody knows that.

If you tear a paper, you can’t put it back without tape or glue.

And in his writing: 

If you bracke a promas then that persen will be mad.

If you have 1 one pensle and you bracke it: you will have to buy another pensle.

~~~

At the time I thought it was cute, mundane…if anything I remember wishing he would come up with something deeper than how bugs look under a magnifying glass. But now having reached the median of my active duty as a mother, I appreciate this innocent list as a glimpse into my child’s world during the year he started school, when he was taking cause and effect and rules and being a good person to a next level, as well as admiring Daddy. There will never be another list like it.

I don’t see Fred growing in the way that I used to, when change meant such drama as going from traveling on all fours to walking upright. Nowadays I catch it in the quiet and in passing – the sighting of small wads of hair in the recycling bin because he has decided to fix his haircut by himself, or when I look up from my cutting board one evening to answer a question and realize that I need to raise my head higher now in order to meet his eyes.  I see it if I take the time to peer into and appreciate his world, a world that is constantly shifting, changing, growing, at a speed now so steady we can hardly feel it, not unlike the rotation of our planet or the blooming of a flower when we water it.

Sunday mornings, then and now

2009

Wake up from sound sleep and with a near heart attack at 5:30 a.m. to a little pair of eyes staring down at me, willing me to wake up. Wonder how long he had been standing there. Get pulled out of bed to play. Silently curse…curse a lot.

2010

Wake up at 6:00 a.m. to the pitter-patter of footsteps approaching our room, then stopping abruptly to read the “Come back to Mommy and Daddy’s room after 8 a.m.” sign on the door. Hear and can’t help smiling at child who lets out a very audible “Awwww!” and slumps down on the floor against our door to wait. Hear him giving up after 10 minutes, and allow myself to fall asleep again at the sound of his retreating footsteps.

2013

Wake up at 7:30 a.m. from the sound of husband closing the bedroom door behind him. Fall back asleep. Wake up again at 7:57. Reluctantly sit up and reach over for laptop. Check e-mails and Facebook. Go downstairs to say hello to child at 8:30. He is playing a video game, watching t.v., or reading quietly. Say good morning three times and make him respond. I wrap my arms around him and playfully squeeze him, asking him how he slept. I take his mumbled “good…” for now. He nods when I ask if he has already eaten something. I go back upstairs to bed, to my laptop. Twenty minutes later, I hear his footsteps running up the stairs, more staccato now, less pitter-patter. He gets dressed and washes up. He and his best friend Jack had already made an appointment to meet at 9, at his house.

All I ever wanted was sleep, and now the house feels so quiet.

What are your Sunday mornings like? 🙂

Stress and growing pains (a back-to-school post)

I didn’t get much uninterrupted sleep over the last week. Fred was struggling with a cold and an on-again-off-again fever, night terrors, and complaints of mysterious leg pain at odd hours of the night.

I can attribute all of this to any number of things — the hectic travel schedule we had this summer, summer camp fatigue, recirculated air, too much t.v., too much video game playing, too much sugar…and/or…I can blame it on August, the ending of summer and a time when his half-brother returns home 7,000 miles away, and the anticipation of a new year at school.

As in tune to my child as I’d like to think I am, I haven’t always been successful in seeing when he is anxious. After all, he is not likely to come to me and say, “Mommy, I’m nervous about starting school and about the academic and social pressures that I’ll be facing this year.”

Of course part of it is because it’s too easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day to always see beyond the surface, to know that your child might be talking back to you or overreacting over small inconveniences not because he’s being difficult but because something deeper is unsettling him.

It can be hard, too, because we might have forgotten exactly what it’s like to be 5 on the verge of starting kindergarten or 6 about to head into 1st grade or 10 wrapping up the final year before moving on to middle school. By now, we’ve conquered so many feats from surviving high school to passing any number of job interviews to graduating from the dating world to giving birth. Our adult brain with all its experience and wisdom and a certain amount of amnesia now ranks moving on to the next grade in school as nerve-wracking as taking that first step into a cocktail party; it’s uncomfortable but after a couple of drinks and some introductions we know we’ll sail through.

It’s also harder for me to notice the signs, I suppose, because I had it harder, just like my parents had it harder than I when they were in China. Growing up in my family we’d heard so many versions of “When I was your age I had to walk three miles to school without shoes.” (The joke for our generation is “When I was your age I had to get up to turn the t.v. channel. ;-)) As a first generation American, though, things were quite difficult for a good number of years while my parents were trying to get established in a country where they didn’t know the language or customs. They fought all the time from the stress, to the point where I used to run into bed and hide as soon as I heard my father coming home from work. For the first 10 years we lived in a 2-room apartment in a pretty bad part of town, and one night when I was about Fred’s age I heard a woman get shot outside my bedroom window while I was trying to sleep. I never talked to anyone about how I was feeling, but my body was screaming through headaches, stomachaches, tics and canker sores. And I coped by turning inward, to reading, writing, drawing, and daydreaming.

Those years feel like a lifetime ago, and today we have everything – my modest definition of everything. We live in a safe community, a beautiful home (once I organize it), and we have the luxury (and burden) of knowing that Fred never needs to suffer or want for anything. He travels, takes piano and martial arts lessons, studies foreign languages, reads books he is running out of room for, plays freely outside with his friends. He is safe and he is incredibly loved. To me, he has absolutely everything.

Interestingly, though, that is how my parents saw me as well: blessed and privileged. In their eyes I got to grow up in America, to know English, to attend school all the way through graduate studies without ever needing to question otherwise, to not know the threat of soldiers or invasions, to never have to go a day without food, and to grow up with both parents (my father was on his own from 16 and my mother never saw her father). My parents had not seen the stress I was suffering, because they thought I had everything.

Nine years ago when I was an expat in Japan and home alone with a new baby, I spent a good deal of time on a mothers’ forum on the internet. I was living in the suburbs then and knew no one and couldn’t speak the language well. I was grappling with some level of post-partum depression or “blues” as well, and though new to the whole world of social media, decided one day to reach out and talk about my feelings of isolation, especially with my husband away at work 16 hours a day.  I received many sympathetic and encouraging responses, but one woman brusquely responded that at least my husband wasn’t stationed in Afghanistan, that those wives were the ones who had it hard.

Her response humbled, hurt and angered me. If I were to compare my troubles against the troubles of the world, then I should simply keep my mouth shut, something I had been doing my whole life anyway, up until I posted that message to the forum. Absolutely many have it harder. There are women raising families alone, women living with disabilities, women being beaten by their spouses, women being sold into prostitution, women being raped and mutilated and murdered — where do I stop? And yet the fact that others have it harder or worse – and even the awareness and appreciation that they do – does not lessen my need for comfort during my own times of difficulty, even if the difficulties seem paltry against the world’s larger and innumerable problems.

And so for all the parenting mistakes I have made, I am grateful that I have managed to not belittle the stresses felt by my son, comparing his experiences against mine. Over dinner with family friends the other day, Fred said, “Teachers yell more in the 4th grade. In kindergarten and first grade they’re nice to you and they take care of you, but they yell more and more after that. And there’s going to be bullying, and bullying tends to take place around lockers.” This is thanks to stories, rumors, books, and too much Nick at Night. But this is also the reality that my rising 4th grader believes he will face in the coming year – the certain extrication from childhood, the entry into a more unknown and threatening stage of boyhood – and that can be pretty stressful for anyone.

The Academy Awards and my little kid

Watching the Academy Awards red carpet with my 8 year-old last night, I realized how eye-opening and foreign the world of Hollywood was to him. Among the endless questions:

Why is she so tall?

Why is everyone so tall?

Why are there mostly women?

How come there are barely any men?

Who is Jennifer Aniston?

Why are there so many Jennifers?

What is Tiffany?

He’s the one who played Abraham Lincoln? How tall is he? (His 3rd grade class had just finished a unit on Abe Lincoln and one big takeaway was what a tall president Lincoln was.)

In trying to find “good mom” answers to Fred’s endless questions, I realized what was all so new and puzzling to him. Yes, everyone is tall because tall is what our society deems attractive; there are mostly women because we care about how the women look; there are so many Jennifers because Jennifer, in my generation, was the “cool” name for girls. And Tiffany? Tiffany is a famous jewelry company.

Fred, welcome to the world that Mommy has been trying to pretend for you doesn’t exist.

I suppose we all arrive here at one point or another in our lives and, if we’re lucky, we eventually emerge from and escape it forever: this place where beauty, height, popularity and wealth matter.

Fred has been shielded from much if not all of it; it’s partly intentional, mostly natural. We don’t talk much about beauty or appearance because it’s not all that important to us. We don’t have wealth to flaunt. And we’re very fortunate in that we live in a kind of utopia where the vast majority of our friends and neighbors have better things to do than to try and keep up appearances.

I now occasionally indulge in the Oscars and in People magazine, but I’ve come far enough in my life to now be able to view it as strictly entertainment, as a fun escape from the daily grind of work and sometimes life.

But growing up I did get sucked deeply and violently into this Hollywood vortex. Left to my own devices, I began collecting celebrity magazines by the time I was Fred’s age, cutting out and studying pictures of Charlie’s Angels and Cheryl Tiegs…wondering when and if I could ever look the way they did in their bikinis (never mind that I was still years away from puberty!). Of course, it wasn’t just Hollywood that did this to me; I’m sure it was a confluence of the heavy emphasis on beauty in my household, my own lack of self-esteem, and my own shame in my Asian features. For years as a girl I’d yearned to look like someone I could never look like: a tall, western model.

Fred will be spared much of this, I am sure, because I will not let him down this path. I will not allow him to believe that a woman’s face, breasts and legs are what constitute true beauty; I will not allow him to believe that as a man he needs power as defined by wealth and women. But last night I did open the door for him. He saw enough to be surprised. He is a petite boy, a petite boy who eats well, exercises and gets rave reviews at every check up. But he is not tall, and he will likely never be tall. I’ve made sure to not pass on any messages to him that as a man he needs to be tall and big, that to find the love of his life he needs to be over 6 feet, that to be successful professionally he needs anything beyond integrity, passion, a good work ethic and teamwork skills. So he feels great about himself, because he knows he’s an energetic, caring and curious kid who is loved by friends and family. Last night the majority of his confusion and the bulk of his questions had to do with height and why the stars needed to be tall, and in coming up with answers – answers to questions that I have honestly never needed to answer before yesterday – my heart felt a little broken, and my power to protect and influence him just a little smaller.