Archives for January 2018

Home is Where

“A house that has been experienced is not an inert box. Inhabited space transcends geometrical space.”

So wrote philosopher Gaston Bachelard in his 1957 book The Poetics of Space. I was thinking of the book today as I was driving back from an errand in Salem today, a day on which I am normally home. For those of us fortunate enough to have a steady place to live, a house or apartment enclosed by walls and a roof, our accumulated possessions (not to mention the patina of sloughed-off skin and hair; sorry if you were eating) constitutes an animal claim on the space as home. In America there is a legal structure in place that grants ownership (or, through rent or lease, temporary stewardship).

Do these things make a home? If Bachelard is right, there is an extra dimension to a home that cannot be mapped or transcribed. Neither do I think it can be found in a legal contract. The dimension of time–the fourth, or whatever it is now–can deepen the relationship. Spaces that have passed from one generation to the next, for example. Or the place(s) in which we spent our childhoods. But time itself is no guarantee of transcendence. What if you didn’t want to be there? Also, there is no guarantee, period: according to the Pew Research Center, “Nearly 1 in 100 people worldwide are now displaced from their homes.” In the Middle East, it’s now 1 in 20.

Our family has been living in the same house–6 people plus one cat in what is only technically a three bedroom–for five years. We did not intend to stay here for this long, after having made three moves in the five years previous.

Each year we have discussed how we could countenance our next move into a place more central, more spacious, more insulated, less soggy (and almost certainly more expensive). Instead, we have accumulated some of that stuff, including heaters, fans, blankets, shelves and (thank goodness) a dehumidifier, that have made this ostensibly temporary space more livable. It makes sense because, you know, we’re living in it.

Also tied up in all this is the realization that to our children, even the older ones who remember different addresses, this is the place in which they’re growing up. At some point we had to come to the same conclusion, and behave accordingly.

Or as Bachelard writes, “imagination augments the values of reality.” Right.

Share

Urgent Issues of Our Time, Part II

So, as I was saying. The X-Men were always my jam. They appealed to me because, unlike other superheroes with their fantasies of power that came about usually through accidents (gamma rays, cosmic rays, radioactive bug bites), the X-Men (and -Women, and -Girls and -Boys) were who they were. In the comics, a mutation usually became active with the onset of puberty, which is just about the perfect way of talking about what happens to the adolescent body and brain. Think of Rogue, for whom intimate contact could have deadly consequences for the other person. Or Shadowcat, who in her social awkwardness could become a literal wallflower, fading into the wall and out the other side. Or Cyclops, who had to keep his vision (feelings?) covered up or risk causing limitless damage. Like millions of readers, I identified with these young adults who hadn’t asked for their powers, struggled to understand and control them, and in some cases would give anything to get rid of them.

What happens in adolescence that leads to such perilous places? We have long understood the changes that our bodies go through during puberty, with those new combinations of chemicals; those strange and powerful feelings; that hair.  It would be easy to think that you were going through this by yourself, and were suddenly separate from the human race. A mutant!

Recent work in neuroscience has been trying to understand the changes that take place in the teenage brain. NPR’s Dina Temple-Raston, in her extensive reporting on terrorism, wanted to understand the appeal of extremist groups like ISIS to adolescents. What would make a seemingly “normal” kid from a typical suburban background want to leave everything they knew and enter a life of secrecy and violence? Her excellent piece on reformed ISIS recruit Abdullahi Yusuf (seriously, it’s really good) shows how these questions must lead inevitably into teenage brain development. The teenage feeling of invulnerability, the aggrieved sensitivity to injustice, the penchant for risk-taking, the lack of consideration for consequences, can take an adolescent into any number of far-flung places. What’s missing during this time is that still, quiet voice that (tends to) guide us as adults. In the piece, Temple-Raston identifies it as the “part of the brain that neuroscientists liken to an internal compass, called the insula, can be built up during adolescence through critical thinking and self-reflective practices.”

This kind of strengthening practice, provided in Yusuf’s case through a reading list and assigned poetry, is what the X-Men find under the guidance of Professor X at the School for Gifted Youngsters (having a responsible adult mentor is clearly important as well). With these opportunities for reflection and control, those scary changes can become powers.

Now if only the films could get it right.

Share

Urgent Issues of Our Time, Part I

I would like to talk about one of the most urgent issues of our time.

It affects young and old, male and female, 1% and 99.

It’s called Superhero-Movie Fatigue, or S-MF.

It’s a feeling that relates to getting exactly what you wanted when you were a child, as an adult, and just getting more all the time without stopping. For me, this relates absolutely to the Marvel movies. For years, attempts to bring my favorite comics to the screen ranged from “good enough, considering” (X-Men, the first two) to “as good as can be expected, really” (Spider-Man, again the first two) to “no” (Hulk, the first one; Fantastic Four, all). Since Iron Man somehow wandered into the proper pacing and tone, thus launching the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a sustainable concern, geeks like me finally won. We get movies made to our exacting and deeply embarrassing specifications. And they cost hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s right: the entire economies of nations rendered into grease poured onto the gears of a gigantic nostalgia machine.

Before we continue, I just want to say that now that I have seen the most recent Star Wars films, even knowing that Disney plans to make Star Wars films at the ridiculous pace of one per year for the foreseeable future, I will never get tired of Star Wars. There is no such thing as SW-MF. Not now that I have successfully passed my childhood obsession to my own children.

But we’re here to talk about super heroes. I like all those Avengers. None of them were really my favorites growing up, but it’s, they’re fine. And come on, no one read Guardians of the Galaxy. Don’t even lie.

Now that they’ve figured it out (Disney, I mean, which has figured out, and owns, everything I ever liked as a kid), there’s just nothing to look forward to. Going to see a Marvel movie in the theatre is now pretty much exactly like buying a Marvel comic at 7-11. And much more expensive.

What does all this have to do with parenting?

I meant to get to it, but I ran out of space. To be continued. Hint: it has something to do with the X-Men. And the teenage brain.

Excelsior!

 

 

 

Share

Friending

Being a parent can be…absorbing. So much so, in fact, that it’s possible to lose track of the things that make up a non-parenting life. Case in point: today I am home with the kids while my wife left to spend the afternoon with her friend, who had managed to find someone to watch her own. Our kids were genuinely puzzled by what was happening. “Where did Mom go?”

“To hang out with her friend.”

“But…what are they doing?”

“I don’t know. Going to lunch. Going to a bookstore. Whatever they want to do, I guess.”

“But…why?”

Etc.

Clearly we don’t spend enough time with our friends. Outside of church or other family-related functions, it just doesn’t happen. For our first several years as parents, it was just hard to manage. One is busy, what with the children and all. It’s hard to spend time with other adults who aren’t also parents. Eventually, it got easier, but I guess it just hadn’t occurred to us until recently. And we’re both relatively (and happily) antisocial anyway. Evenings in this house are a flurry of knitting and book-reading.

And yet…friends! They’re kind of important, aren’t they? From a parenting standpoint, it’s good to model this kind of social interaction (as became clear when my daughters were baffled by the idea of adults hanging out together away from children).

But there’s more! Last night we had accepted a long-standing invitation for dinner at the home of some people we knew from church. It was fun. I forgot. Other people: fun! On the way home, the 12 year-old pointed out what a different sort of household this was, with an open invitation to whomever needed a place to go. People in and out all the time. Long dinner table, guest bedrooms. Stay as long as you like. Definitely different from our rather more insular household (plus, short dinner table, no spare anything).

But again, good to model the interactions. And good for kids to know about other kinds of family.

Sounds like a project! In the new year, I resolve to have some friends. Wish me luck.

 

Share

Try This One Weird Trick When You Parent!

I have always been amused by those cheap and vaguely disreputable looking ads that appear at the bottom of the screen on websites. You know, the ones that exhort you to try this “one weird trick” to solve various problems. I’m not sure how effective those ads are, but one can assume that if they didn’t work (for the marketers, that is, if not for the curious clicker) they wouldn’t be there. I have never been intrigued enough to actually click on them (have you?), but fortunately at least one journalist was paid to do so.

Parenting, as you know, rarely lends itself to easy or singular answers (in other words, to “one weird trick”). But sometimes there is a simple solution. I’m going to present not one, fellow parent, not two, but three weird tricks that will actually get results with your kids.

Try this one weird trick to make your kids smarter!

Here it is, without even a dodgy video you can’t skip or pause: get some books. That’s right, according to science, there is a strong correlation between having books in the home and kids’ future academic achievement. That’s it! Of course the assumption is that these books get read at some point. But most important is simply to own them and make them available. Kids who grow up in a home with books will learn to value them and the skills needed to unlock them.

Want to know what your kids are thinking? Try this one weird trick!

This one I got from a parent I worked with a few years ago, who told me her amazing secret: she makes sure that when her daughter and friends are going somewhere, she is the driver. Evidently the act of driving clouds awareness, in the tween/teen brain, of the presence of the parent. Give it 8 or 10 blocks, and those kids will start talking as if there are no adults present. You will learn everything, and they won’t know that you know it! This may actually be true. I don’t know; I’m not science. But research does support the practice of talking to your kids in the car. The casual, pressure-free environment eliminates the need for eye contact and facilitates communication.

This one weird trick will keep your kids from doing drugs!

Eat dinner together! Several studies over the last 10-15 years have demonstrated that kids who eat meals with their family are significantly less likely to engage in drug use or other risky behaviors. As I looked into this weird trick, I found that its veracity has been challenged by recent research. It just goes to show that magic is always more complicated than we think (see Harry Potter). But even if you can’t sit together for meals, you can find some other opportunity to connect regularly with your kids and nurture trust and communication.

There, now you’ve got it all figured out. Parents, send no money!

Share