The World of Wonder in the Backyard

July 20, 2017

When I was little, I know I could look at a three-inch space on the ground or on a brick wall and find a whole world to become enchanted with. My parents had a massive hifi console in our living room. I’d play their records and stare into the blue “On” light on the base and imagine it was the rabbit hole into Alice’s Wonderland. I would plop down in my mom’s rock garden and find magical realms in the cracks and under leafs. Being small gave me a microscopic view of the world I think the adults missed. They were busy thinking about taxes and war and hippies ruining the nation. I was happy staring endlessly at ladybugs and pretending a peanut shell in a puddle was a speedboat.

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Once Cozy started walking we began going on strolls in the neighborhood to “see what we could find.” There were lots of stops to smell flowers and look for honeybees. The wall at Little Big Burger she is particularly fond of. (She gives it a little big hug every time we pass it.) Every step is filled with a reason to be amazed. To make it one block it can take an hour. “Daddy, what’s this?”

“It’s a leaf, honey,” Now we include hikes in Forest Park which might as well be the jungles of the Yucatan (where we all were a year ago.) It’s more than father-daughter time. It’s a time to experience the sense of wonder in the mundane. The sacred in the profane. The awesome in the gross.

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This summer we’ve been spending a lot of time in our yard. There’s a spider who lives on one of her old boots that we made into a planter. Of course she’s the “Itsy Bitsy” spider of song and legend. There’s a good 30 minutes watching her and the crows on the telephone wire who might want to gobble her up. Our small backyard has a bounty of delicious raspberries, dancing white butterflies, and bees harvesting pollen from our dandelion forrest. “See their legs, Cozy? How yellow they are? They’re going to turn that into honey!”

“Yum, Daddy! Can I go with them?”

At her daycare they go on “nature walks.” It’s a gaggle of 2-year-olds strolling through the neighborhood blocks looking for adventure. St. Andrews church is a “castle” they pass by. I’m sure local front yard gardens offer a thousand lessons. It must require a certain abound of zen to get these kids all headed in the same direction. Every step offers an opportunity to freak out over something the rest of us see as insignificant.

When I was a pre-schooler, my parents felt perfectly fine turning me loose into the woods by myself. I would build damns and collect leaves until Mom rang the dinner bell. Times have changed, but Cozy really doesn’t have to leave my sight to find a magical world under a rock or inside a hole in the porch steps. The big world doesn’t have much bearing on the microcosmos for a toddler.

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She’s become fascinated with a Netflix show called Beat Bugs. It’s the adventures of five bugs built around Beatles songs. (Yes, they have a friend who is a blackbird.) Their whole world exists in the backyard of a little girl not much older than Cozy. It’s full of music and mystery. Their joyous theme song is “All You Need Is Love.” I have to think Cozy thinks the same plot lines are playing out behind our house. (We’ve certainly got at least one Walter the Slug who is probably singing “I am the Walrus” as we sit here.) I see the show as a way to turn her on to Beatle music, but I’m starting to think it’s her bonding with other tiny things. We’ve been calling her “Bug” for a few years now so it makes sense that she feels more kinship with the ants on our sidewalk than the G-20 Summit.

The world is so big. A one trillion-ton iceberg just broke off of Antarctica. The President is having secret meetings with a Russian dictator (who may or may not have serious dirt on him) with no Americans present. Your kid’s talking doll might be a spy for the FBI. (Or in Trump’s case, the Kremlin.) A new study just found plastic particles in most brands of Mac & Cheese. There’s just a great weight of it all. It makes sense to take some time and find a small crack in the ground, one you step over every day. It’s actually a massive canyon teaming with life. Maybe it’s the Beat Bugs, or maybe real bugs. Let your mind go just for a minute like you did when you were a kid. If the earth is just a dot in the infinite universe, that crack is as important as we are.

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Seeing the world through Cozy’s eyes puts the big picture into perspective. (This blog post didn’t need to be very big.)

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A Time to Refrain from Fighting

14 July 2017

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Tuesday afternoon I had just completed one of our weekly civil rights bus tours of Portland. I’m a presenter for the Fair Housing Council of Oregon ride through our state’s tortured racial history. My part of the program is about hate crime that now links the 1988 bludgeoning death of an Ethiopian immigrant by racist skinheads to the brutal attack by an “alt-right” lunatic on a Portland Max train last May. The bus rolls from the street where Mulugeta Seraw was murdered to the Hollywood Max station where three heroes were stabbed for standing up to hate, two of them paying for it with their lives. I try to connect the dots and have yet to do so without choking back the tears.

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I end my part of the tour by talking about the difficult work of reaching out to the haters and leading them to the side of love. That that’s where the true justice is. I talk about an organization called Life After Hate, a group of “formers,” who used to be members of white supremacist groups and now do important anti-racism and de-radicalization work. I mention how this group was awarded a $400,000 grant by the Obama Administration that was just rescinded by the Trump Administration. (Gee, why would Trump want to stop the work of a group that drags people out of right-wing hate groups?) And I talk about the 16-year-old girl with the swastika tattoo who, in 1988, handed her skinhead boyfriend the bat used to bash Mulugeta Seraw’s skull in. She’s now one of my most cherished friends. She served her time, befriending an African-American girl she was locked up with, and now speaks powerfully about what sent her down the ugly road of hate.

Tuesday’s tour was for a group of fresh-faced graduate students at Lewis & Clark. Afterwards a young woman approached me and said, “I’m a radical feminist anarchist and I think these people should be attacked, physically attacked.” I tried to explain to her that that approach only pushes them farther into their little Nazi boxes, making them into the victims of another kind of hate. That it makes more sense to try to make a connection with them and bring them to our side. That I’ve been doing this work for almost thirty years and this is the only thing that actually works to reduce the hate and threats of violence. She was having none of it, harumphed, and stormed off.

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I’ve been reflecting on that interchange this week. One one hand, I don’t think she understands the concept of “radical feminism.” If you think the appropriate response to a social problem is more macho violence, then you are not a radical feminist. On the other hand, I get it. If someone had knocked the crap out of Jeremy Christian before May 26th, maybe he would have thought twice about opening his hate spewing mouth on a crowded train that afternoon.

And I was thinking about it last night. Andrea and I were celebrating our wedding anniversary at a great new jazz bar in Portland called The Jack London Revue. The Jim Beam was settling into my veins as the Mel Brown Quartet played. I looked at my wife in the dimly lit club and thought of how lucky I am to be her husband. We are a team on multiple fronts: parenting, home-maintaing, creative projects, financial struggles. We’re in this together. And we’re stronger when we come at life as a partners instead of rivals. There are fights, when somebody is convinced they are right. I would love it if she rinsed her plates and I’m sure she would love it if I stopped thinking farts were “funny.” She’s very Antifa on that one. (Anti-Fart)

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But there’s another way. I jokingly think of it as “feminist husbandry.” There’s a challenge when we are so committed to our position that there must be a “winner.” My charge is to just stop. Just stop. Lose the ego and remember we’re a team first. My job is to take care of my partner, not win an argument. We can find our common ground. I don’t always do it, though. It’s easy to let the anger win and just want to (like my “radical feminist anarchist” rider) attack. That’s why I’ve put little reminders up in our house. Signs that say,  “appreciate,” “acknowledge,” and “be loving” are taped up on walls. (It’s cheaper than getting them tattooed on my hands.) There is time in life to take a breath and remember what the mission is.

One of my favorite songs growing up was The Byrds’ version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” The lyrics are actually from the Christian Bible; Ecclesiastes 3. There is a time to fight, but also a time to refrain from fighting. Love wins out over hate. Ultimately, we are all on the same side. That includes the haters and those that hate the haters.

Please support Life After Hate here (click). Maybe someday I will form Life After Farting.

The Monsters Under the Bed

July 7, 2017

I’m learning all about the many stages of child development. For example, Cozy suddenly doesn’t want to stop wearing diapers. I figured she’s be ready to move to the next big thing, undies! It’s her connection to her safe dependency on her parents, perhaps; a security blanket she can pee on. I mean, once you start wearing underpants, what’s next? A 9 to 5 job? Days spent deleting spam emails and right-wing family members? Awkward conversations with canvassers on the front porch?

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We’re now in the monster stage. The monsters have arrived in our home. There’s a monster in her bedroom or, just one in the closet. She doesn’t want to sleep in her room or go downstairs and help me with the laundry. “There’s a monster down there!” I’m not sure where it comes from. Oh, yeah, I do. Scooby Doo, and Frozen and everything else that’s “kid friendly.”  She won’t even open Where the Wild Things Are yet.

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I know there are twisted parents that won’t think twice about exposing their kids to the most horrible images. (“C’mere baby. We’re gonna watch Aliens. It’ll be good for ya.”) I’m still suffering from watching Dark Shadows with my mom as a toddler. In 1999, I ran into a couple with their small child at a theater buying tickets to 8mm, the Nicolas Cage movie about snuff films. They were in line in front of me and I knelt down to the kid’s level and said, “Little girl, your parents are seriously fucked up people.” The mother looked like she was going to get another beating as dad glared at me. I should track that little girl down, probably in Coffee Creek Women’s Correctional Facility.

The point is, we’ve been trying to shield Cozy from the basic fact that there are truly monsters in the world. If only they were as manageable as Sasquatch or Marshmallow the Snow Giant. I don’t want her to know that there are people who would snatch her off a playground or murder her parents for a little bit of money. I’m old enough to remember stories of garment manufactures who cut corners on flame retardant pajamas, soaking them with chemicals that mutated kids’ DNA. (Explaining why they keep making X-Men movies.) Those creeps were monsters.

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In the most recent episode of my podcast, Recovering Asshole, I was talking to feminist educator Jen Moore about male privilege. There are so many monsters that I, as a male, can ignore. We discussed that, at some point, my wife and I will have to explain to our daughter that there are boys and men who will try to rape her and those monsters might appear to her as friends. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of potential threats. Add drunk drivers and politicians that want to take away your health care (some of whom are surely drunk themselves) and more. When I was a kid, I thought the city-stomping line-up in 1968 Japanese film, Destroy All Monsters, was the worst possible thing humanity could face. And then Donald Trump pulled us out of the Paris Climate Accord.

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I was listening to a story on NPR about the horrific Grenfell Tower fire in London in which they are still counting the dead. The building designers seemed to forget sprinklers and adequate fire exits, but it was low income housing so why bother. There was a witness account of a woman who wrapped a baby in blankets and dropped the baby from a 9th story window. I had to pull over the car I was so consumed with sadness. I thought of the World Trade Center jumpers on 9/11 whose last choice was one form of death over another. Then I thought of a mother choosing to say goodbye to her little baby before she perished in flames, hoping that at least her child would survive. I thought the people responsible for those deaths are the real monsters under our beds.

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Cozy has taken to playing “Monster” this week. “Daddy, you be a monster and I’ll be a princess.” Or the more fun version, “Daddy, I’ll be a monster and you be a princess.” This monster prefers tickling to abduction or regulation violations. I think it’s her way of having some power over the feeling that something evil is lurking just out of view. When she was born I believed I could protect her from it, but now I know I can’t. Not truly. But let’s pretend, just a little longer.

Postscript: About 1 a.m. this morning, Andrea and I were still up. (I had a late-night job talk with someone in Ethiopia.) Cozy came in, sleepily carrying her Minnie Mouse doll, Pink (her favorite blanket), a Frozen kickball, and a green mylar balloon on a string. We were laughing so hard, we let her climb in bed with us. No monsters here.

 

The Need to Work

June 22, 2017

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It was a blessing in disguise. My paternity leave from Portland State University was involuntarily extended thanks to a bizarre collaboration between a clinically psychotic felon and a couple of administrators with a clear agenda. That time away from full-time work has allowed be to help my daughter transition from a baby into a little person. It’s also allowed me to publish a book, teach on a tropical island, write this weekly blog, start a podcast, and “man” the homefront while my wife advances in the work world. And I got to be home with Cozy from the first gurgle to her saying things like “Let’s check it out,” and “I ran like a cheetah.” It’s been a beautiful experience filled with art, adventure, and great love.

And now it’s time for it to end.

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The truth is I’ve been looking for work ever since I jumped off the gangplank at PSU. But I had a nice cushion made up of a settlement, savings, some publishing money, and a perfect collection of rare Avengers and Hulk comic books that now (sadly) belong to someone else. A $50,000 loan from my retirement was going to get us through to my next gig. Now, suddenly, I can see the bottom of the well. The money is about gone. Invest the last bucket in Powerball tickets?

Two years ago I thought I could just make a local lateral transition. There was a visiting professorship at Reed College (they wanted a quantitative methods teacher and I’m a qualitative schmoe) and a tenure-track gig at the University of Portland (they could have me but only with my tenure). I was sad but not shocked when those didn’t pan out. (They must not have known how awesome I was.) So I branched out and got an interview at CUNY in Manhattan and then a second interview with the provost. (I must have asked for too much money for that one.) What seemed like it would be a relatively smooth “mid-career” move looked increasingly more and more difficult. On top of the fact that universities are replacing tenure-line professorships with the academic slave-labor known as “adjuncts” and “on-line education,” the person that was applying was me, and, according the rumor mill, I have baggage.

What started off as a few disheartening roadblocks became dozens of rejections. Some positions I was a stretch to qualify for. (I would have made an awesome dean at Eastern Oregon University.) Some positions I was definitely an over-qualified candidate. (After my great interview, nobody could tell me why I didn’t get the job teaching Intro Sociology at Green River Community College.) Some jobs would have pushed me out of my comfort zone. (Oh, how I wanted to be the new executive director of Caldera Arts.) And some jobs were tailor-made for my experience and skills. (Whoever ends up being the new Diversity Program Specialist for the Portland Police, I challenge you to an equity duel.)

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Why am I not getting these jobs? You’d think people would want an award-winning professor, published in his field, with a long record of community service, who is likely quoted in your copy of the New York Times or making points on CNN while you’re on the treadmill. Are all the other candidates that much better? Or is something else going on?

I left PSU under a cloud of suspicion. It’s no secret that there were a few higher-ups that had it in for me. They were fueled by the rumor and innuendo that I was some type of campus playboy. A old bogus post on an internet gossip site that had a picture of me with my girlfriend of almost three years and the assertion that she “slept with me for an A” gave them additional ammo. There was never anything of the sort ever in my academic career. No human can say they got any special treatment in any of my classes for anything. But when gossip rules, you can’t win. (Hillary Clinton, I feel your pain.)

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Then a “former racist skinhead” named Steven Stroud decided he was going to try everything he could think of to attack me for some perceived slight that existed in his psychotic mind. He began writing numerous letters from his prison cell to the university, accusing me of everything under the sun. Out of pure luck, he finally hit on one thing these powerful few could use.

My crime: My wife was a former student.

That’s all it took. Forget that Andrea and I were consenting adults. Forget that she was the one who first asked me me out (after the class had ended). That was it. I had signed an agreement five years earlier that I would never date a PSU student after a stalker went all Basic Instinct on me and it was a quick way to resolve the matter. Now the torches were relit. They even traveled out to Eastern Oregon to visit this guy in prison to see if there were any more salacious details he could add to their “case.” They were giddy.

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I have zero regrets about my relationship with Andrea. We are incredibly happy and more in love every day. And that love produced our beautiful daughter. Cozy is the sun my little planet was destined to revolve around. She will change history. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. My only regret is that I quickly settled my lawsuit against the university. I had the moral high ground and could have won, especially if I took the story to my colleagues, students, and the general public. But we had a new baby and I was scared I would burn up our nest egg on lawyer fees while they used tuition and taxpayer dollars to fund their highly skilled legal team. I settled and thought I could just leave my academic home of twenty years and move on.

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Now over two years later it feels like I have been blacklisted; that the rumor-mongers are still waging their campaign against me. I need to work. The loan has to be repaid, the mortgage is due, and my daughter deserves the life I waited 50 years to give her. (I was one of those people who said, for decades, “I can’t have children, I’m not financially stable enough!”) She is so excited to exist in this world, I should be able to give her some security (although I will be eternally grateful to WIC for making sure my child at least had $8 worth of fruits and vegetables each month). This kid already deserves more than I will be able to give her.

So here’s the deal: I’m a passionate worker with a PhD. from Emory University and a long employment record. My last full time salary was $82,000 for a 9-month contract. I will work for less than that, but it’s gotta cover the bills. And I need benefits. Republicans  have made it clear they want to kill the Affordable Care Act which, at the moment, provides health care to my family. We’d like to stay in Portland but for a decent job we’ll move to Arkansas and just annoy the locals by playing Bikini Kill and drawing Hitler mustaches on Trump posters.

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I was an awesome professor. There’s plenty of people who will tell you that my classes at Portland State changed lives. I’d like a job that makes the world a better place. If you can convince me that selling vacuum cleaners can do that, I’ll listen. But it’s time for me to get back to work. My family is depending on me.

Please share this with anyone who might be able to help. References and my mother’s secret cheesecake recipe available on request. Email: blazakr@gmail.com

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For the love of God, please eat your dinner

April 27, 2017

My kid could live on Mac and Cheese and chocolate ice cream. In fact, she’d prefer it. She’d happily go into diabetic shock, with some macaroni falling out her mouth while watching Mickey and the Roadster Racers. But she ain’t going out like that. Not if I can help it.

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We’ve entered a new phase where Cozy does not want to eat meals. At two-years and eight-months-old she’s asserting her independence by driving us crazy at dinner time. The other night we were trying to get her to eat some wholesome chicken soup and we got as far as getting a spoonful in her mouth but she refused to swallow it. In fact, she walked right into her time-out corner and stared at us, like Robert De Niro in Cape Fear, soup in mouth. “I can see you, parents.”

She’s programmed for maximum sugar intake. If we go through the bakery section at the grocery store, her eyes swell up like a muppet child. She’d sell her soul to Satan for chocolate pudding and turn her mother over to ICE for a lollipop. I feel like I should just hand her a two-pound bag of sugar and let her max-out. It doesn’t help that we live one block from the famous Salt & Straw Ice Cream shop. Anytime we walk out the front door the creamery GPS kicks in and she takes off for a scoop of fudge brownie. Remember when she couldn’t walk? Now I’m chasing her down the street.

I know she gets her sweet tooth from me. I was raised on pie and Now & Laters. My mom got me to eat my carrots by smothering them in brown sugar and my sweet potatoes by baking them with marshmallows. The healthy stuff I wasn’t interested in as a kid. I would sit at the dinner table for hours, staring at a my beets, acting like Gandhi on a hunger strike. (Now, I can’t get enough of yummy beets.) But I’d eat giant bowls of Apple Jacks and slurp down the orange milk afterwards. There’s something in the book of Genesis about the sins of the father being visited upon the children. Well, they got that one fucking right.

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Don’t get me wrong. Cozy likes some healthy foods. Baby carrots, (until recently) peaches, and, I’m sure there’s something else. Vanilla yogurt. She was into strawberries until they started making her itch (or she thinks that they do because we were talking about food allergies one day). I mean there are worse things than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and quesadillas, right? (I just realized that queso + tortilla = quesadilla.) She takes her vitamins and pops a few grapes during the day so I don’t think she’s gonna need UNICEF to save her but it’s got mom and dad kinda concerned.

The online research helps. Apparently many toddlers have a dip in calorie intake after the explosion of growth their first two years. And they won’t starve to death, they’re more like grazing college kids than three-meal-a-day adults. But my daughter is pretty sophisticated otherwise, so is it wrong for me to want her to already have a favorite sushi roll instead of demanding another cheese stick and handful of goldfish crackers? I’d be happy if she just ate spaghetti. What kid doesn’t like spaghetti? Mine.

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I called my mom and asked for help. It seems that I wasn’t too different than Cozy at this age. Her solution was to cover the healthy food in pudding. (I don’t know why I’m not 3000 pounds.) I think Cozy would see right through that ruse. “Hey, man, why is there chicken in my chocolate pudding?”

Meal time is starting to become a struggle. “I don’t want apple sauce. I want a chocolate bunny!” I think that since she now acts like a little person, we expect her to eat what we’re eating. I get that this is a developmental phase but I’m ready for her to discover the joys of a nice omelette. This is Oregon, she better be woofing down the chanterelles and chinook salmon on wild rice by age three. At the moment, it’s time out with a spoonful of RiceARoni melting in her mouth.

But it’s getting better. We’re trying to be more laissez-faire at meal time instead of hovering over her. You know, we’re just chilling, eating some tacos. And Andrea got a great recipe for sopa de letras (alphabet soup) from her mom that Cozy’s been gobbling down. She’ll eat spaghetti if I tell her it’s worms and I had similar success getting her to (finally) eat turkey dogs by pretending they were fingers. (OK, our kid is weird.) Maybe a portobello burger is in her near future.

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The great thing about parenting is that nobody is the first to do it. There’s a whole bunch of experience floating around out there and good folks who are happy to share their wisdom of what works. So the point of this blog is to get some evidence-based practices that don’t involve coating each meal with chocolate frosting or bribing a child endlessly. (“How can you have your pudding if you don’t eat your meat?”) How do I go from the meal-time showdown to a happy family happily full of beans? Don’t panic, she won’t starve. Help me please.

An Interview with My Dad about Parenting and Gender

April 5, 2017

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Last week I took a Spring Break from this blog. My father was visiting us in Portland. He had just celebrated his 75th birthday in Hawaii and (for some reason) chose to leave a sunny beach for cold and rainy Oregon. I was happy because it had been over a year since we had seen him and Cozy really wanted to see her Grandpa. He took Cozy and I to see Moana (Cozy loved it, powering through the scary part, and I appreciated Disney utilizing a Goddess tale) and we had a belated birthday dinner at Portland City Grill. It was nice to catch up.

It’s an odd thing being around your parents when you’re a parent. You realize how like them you are, whether you want to be or not. I see so much of my dad in me. We even have similar mannerisms. It kinda freaks me out a bit. There are certainly qualities in this man I greatly admire, and a few I’ve worked to limit. How much like this person am I? I tend to think I turned out pretty good. I didn’t become a serial killer or a military contractor or a wife-beater or a guy who spends all his time playing fantasy football. I went to graduate school instead of Wall Street. Also, I like quiche. (There are a few kinks still to be worked out.) He did a pretty good job on the parenting front it seems.

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So I thought, while he was here, we’d sit down and I’d ask him what it was like to be a new father of a boy in the mid-1960s, when the world and gender roles were changing. What I got was a very honest conversation about his struggle to find balance between his home life and his work in sales that often took him away from home, a flash of insight into issues that led to my parents divorce when I was 17, and some useful wisdom about how to be a great parent to my daughter. We sat on the couch in my living room talking and I just wanted to ask good questions but as I transcribed our talk I got a greater appreciation for his own journey as a parent.

Randy: So I was born in February 1964. The world was a little different then. Did you know I was going to be a boy?

Dad: No. We talked about it before you were born, about whether we wanted a boy or a girl and we agreed it doesn’t matter the first time, especially the first child, as long as they’re healthy and have all the fingers and toes. It didn’t really matter to us. In fact, we decorated the nursery in yellow so that it didn’t matter whether it was a boy or girl. We changed the decor after it was born, but we were just happy to have a healthy child.

R: Would you have thought differently if I had been born a girl, knowing girls had fewer opportunities?

D: If it was a boy we would have raised it one way, and if it was a girl, we pretty much would have raised it the same way.

R: Did it help that mom had a job before she got pregnant? She didn’t really work after I was born.

D: She was woking in a business office and we agreed that when she was 6 months pregnant that she would stop working and stay home and make sure that she was healthy. We could live on one income and that’s what we did. The second income was nice but it wasn’t necessary. I was making enough money to take care of the family and I really didn’t want her to work. I wanted her to stay home with the baby. And she did.

R: Did she want to work?

D: Yeah, oh yeah. She was always wanting to help out and work and stay active but she found things to do at home and concentrating to getting to that baby to one year, at least.

R: The mid-60s was really the rise of the feminist movement and women discovering their life outside of the home. What did you think about “women’s lib”? Mom has said she was aware of it, but were you thinking it was a big change?

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D: I was open minded about it. If she wanted to work she could work. But we had to consider the babysitter situation. We had an elderly lady upstairs that was a good babysitter and she had some girlfriends that would come over and babysit after that year. But she stayed home for about a year before she went back to work. And she was really bored and anxious to get back to work. She wanted to do more than be just a mother.

R: What did you think about her going back to work then?

D: Back then I wanted her to stay at home and take care of the baby and make dinner and do the laundry and all the stuff that women did then. And I was happy just working and having her be the housewife. Now I think the mother should do whatever they feel comfortable doing. If they wanna work, they should work.

R: OK, lets talk about me. Or just raising a boy. I didn’t really turn out like a typical boy. I wasn’t too obsessed with violence or sports. I’d rather just read. When I was little, did you have a philosophy about how to raise a boy?

D: Like all couples with their first child we didn’t have a clue. We were flying by the seat of our pants. From a philosophy standpoint, we didn’t want you to be a soldier. We wanted you to have a happy childhood. That was really important to us. We tried to do things with you that you’d enjoy. We bought that canoe and we used to take you canoeing when you were little. We went on some camping trips and things like that. We involved you and let you see what the world was like but we didn’t have any ideas of the future of what you were going to be or were going to do. You were always such a good kid we didn’t have to go through the challenge of trying to raise you. You kind of took care of yourself.

R: Did you think boys should be raised differently that girls?

D: We just let you do your own thing. We would keep an eye on you and make sure you didn’t get into anything too violent. We moved from the rental home to a house in Parma Heights, a three bedroom ranch house and I can remember you had your own room. It was a fun place. The backyard was fenced in and it had a playground and swing and you used to go out there and have fun by yourself. We would kind of keep an eye from the house and make sure you were OK.

R: We like to think we’re not raising Cozy as a girl but as a person. She’s gonna have to know about the world and that there’s some inequality she’s going to have to wrestle with, but she’s a person first.

D: Even thought it was 50 years ago we did the same thing. We raised you the same way. We didn’t try to make you macho. You’re your own person. You have respect for both genders and that’s important and you still have that gentleness you had as a kid. You never lost that and that shows up in Cozy.

R: You traveled a lot when I was little. Do you think that impacted how I developed?

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D: I think I would have been able to more things with you and teach you more things. I tried when I was home to concentrate on teaching you the basic fundamentals and to get you involved in things, in sports, in life, in outdoors, and swimming. That was a big part of me. Then swim team. I tried to keep you involved. We started out with Indian Guides. You were Little Crow and I was Big Crow. We had a lot of fun with that. I tried to get you and your brother involved with things, but I tried to be there, included and supporting you. I think that created a problem with the marriage, actually, because when I was home I was so involved with you guys, I probably didn’t pay enough attention to Sandy (my mom). I think it created a lot of boredom on her part because a lot of the time she wasn’t working. She was at home taking care of you guys. There has to be a balance there and I didn’t recognize that balance. I was too intent on making as much money as I could so you guys could have a good life. You were always in neighborhoods and homes that were, um, “upscale.” You always had friends, it was safe, you could walk to church. I always tried to have the family in a place that was safe and fun.

R: OK, last question. What’s your general advice to being a parent to someone Cozy’s age.

D: You’ve gotta give them room to grow. Encourage them to do the right thing, of course. And push them in a direction they don’t want to go but pay attention and see what they enjoy and like to do and just kind of guide them in the direction to their future. They’ll tell you. They’ll let you know what they like. Cozy’s got a great start because she’s got an artist mom and a well-educated dad. You guys are in that period where you’re in a transition now. And when you find out what you want to do next it’s going to be good for you and good for the family. When you’re happy the rest of the family is happy.

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That’s certainly a good piece of truth. Talking to my dad reminded me of Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, and how my mom must have felt a bit stifled in that home in Parma Heights. Those were times when gender roles in middle class homes were really being re-examined. But it also made me think about how much free reign I had as a little boy, to explore the yard, the neighborhood streets, and the woods. That had to play a role in my sense of independence. And that’s what we’re doing with our daughter.  So my father will be a part of her independent spirit.

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Postscript: My mother just read this and thinks a lot of it is just wrong. She used words like “male chauvinist” and “doormat.” I’m gonna do a parallel interview with her about this period and get her side of the story. It’s funny how we (re) remember our own lives.

 

That Pig is a She! Normality of normative maleness

March 22, 2017

My daughter, Cozy, is now 2 years and 7 months old. (I will not say she’s “31 months old.” I won’t.) Seven months ago she had a few words, in English and Spanish. Now she’s having full conversations and saying things like, “Dad, I want the vanilla yogurt” and “Let’s go up Montjuïc!” (Montjuïc is a steep hill in Barcelona and my nickname for the ungodly steep hill on our street.) While I was writing this, she said, “Daddy, you have a booger on your pants. Oh, no. It’s Honey Bunches!” (her favorite cereal). Then she ate it. She is a linguistic sponge. “What’s this? What’s this?” She can’t learn words fast enough.

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The feminist sociologist in me is reminded how language shapes our perceptions of the world. When little boys are told, “Don’t cry like a girl,” there are a bunch of negative messages packed into one little phrase. When I announce the arrival of the “mailman,” it means a “mailwoman” is something odd. (About 40% of letter carriers are female. Ours is named Anthony.) A big issue in language is normative maleness, something I’ve already written about. Male as norm.

One of the most obvious ways this plays out is the language binary around jobs. Actor and actress. Waiter and waitress. Poet and poetress. The female as less. I’ve tried to banish these gendered terms from my vocabulary. Meryl Streep is an actor, Mr. Trump. She’s not an actress. Not in this house. Cozy will hear enough about the “female as less” outside our home. Here, let the message be clear. Now, Dad’s gotta do some laundry.

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This concept was pioneered by French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir in her groundbreaking 1949 book, The Second Sex. Our general discussion of “mankind” is gendered. When we discuss people, we mean “men” with women as the exception. “There is an absolute human type, the masculine… Thus humanity is male,” de Beauvoir wrote. In academics, when it’s time to talk about gender, that’s often code for female stuff, as if men don’t have gender. (There’s a gang of us that specialize on research on masculinity as gender performance.) This filters into our everyday language. If we don’t know for sure that someone (or something) is female, we just assume that they are male. If somebody reads this he’ll learn about normative maleness. (See what I did there?)

This goes all the way to animals. We assume dogs, birds, and squirrels are all male. “Look at that squirrel in the tree. He must be looking for his nuts.” I grew up around horses, so you kinda know the sex of that one, but don’t ask me to tell you whether that sewer rat is male or female. And we all do this. Even radical feminists like me. Normative maleness has been so wired into my brain, I blurt out “he’s” without even thinking about it. We had a mouse in our bedroom this winter. My wife said, “You gotta kill him!” I didn’t even think to say, “Maybe it’s a her!”

How is hearing all these “he’s” impacting my word-sponge daughter? Is she learning that male is the norm and female is “weird”? The thought stops me in my tracks. It’s not a little thing. IT IS NOT A LITTLE THING. There is a massive ripple effect of hearing this little thing over and over again. Think about how both boys and girls process this repeated message about devaluing the feminine. “He” is normal. “She” is not. Seriously, think about it.

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Cozy and I went to Oregon Zoo this week and I tried to be mindful of this messed-up norm. I made a point of using feminine pronouns more than male ones. “Look at that hippo and how big her teeth are.” “That penguin looks like she’s doing a dance.” “Don’t bother that cougar. I think she’s taking a nap.” (OK, the last one was a lady on a bench.) Her main goal of the day the day was to commune with the flamingos but my main goal of the day was to normalize the feminine. We were looking at a parrot and I asked her if she thought it (I almost said, “he”) was a boy or girl. And she said “boy.” When I asked why she said, “Because he’s silly.” So I don’t know if I achieved my goal or not. It was a pretty silly parrot.

I had a professor at Emory who would switch pronouns each term. Fall semester he would use male pronouns and Spring semester he would use female pronouns. Nobody said anything during the fall class (or noticed it), but the guys really got upset in the spring. It was a brilliant way to make an important point. What were those male students so angry about? That they are also co-eds?

There’s a 50/50 chance that animal your looking at or that person you don’t know is a female. If saying “he or she” seems like too much damn work, why not just say “she” to make up for all the years you’ve said, “he.”  I just hope that if someone reads this, she’ll think about the infinite power of language.