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things you don’t think about until you are a parent

About a year ago, my son grew to my height, and he has not shown any sign of slowing down ever since. He’s about half a foot taller than I am now, taller than his father even. It is a very complicated feeling whenever I am startled by having to strain my neck in order to see his face. It also makes it very difficult to hold his gaze and reprimand him when he sort of hovers above my head.

Up until now, I still see him as my baby. Well, secretly anyway. On paper I am all, “You are a teenager now. You have your freedom and independence. You need to learn to take care of yourself.” Honestly though? My heart does a toe touch jump when he lets us tuck him in at night as he lies in the bed that’s barely longer than he is now. He has to sleep diagonally.

They didn’t warn you that this day is coming. Probably because, well, one is supposed to have known better. Babies grow. Everybody gets older every day. Why are parents caught by surprise at all when their children all of a sudden stop being children?

Still, I marveled, “Nobody told me to be prepared for this! I am not ready yet!” when my 14-year-old announced from the bathroom as he brushed his teeth, “Mom! I need to start shaving! Kids at school have been making fun of my mustache.” I ran upstairs and we both stared at the shadow just above his lips in the mirror. Him of pride perhaps? I of shock. Did it sprout overnight? How come I did not notice it until this moment? I was at a loss. “Dad’s coming home tomorrow. He could teach you how.”

Lately he’s been full of surprises. Only that he did not recognize these to be significant watershed moments in his life. One never does, I guess, and leaves the commemoration and the commiseration over them to one’s parents.

“Hey mom, you need to sign me up for driving lessons. Ktahnksbye.”

“I am going to the [school dance] with [girl’s name unintelligible],” he announced casually and went back to reading his Mad magazine, leaving me breathless.

I am at a disadvantage as I did not grow up in this country. Many of these rites of passage taken for granted are completely foreign to me. My knowledge is to the extent of John Hughes movies that I’ve seen. (That, and Porky’s which was, coincidentally, the very first American movie I’ve ever seen on a VHS tape at a friend’s house when the parents were away…) I knew to remind him to find out the color of the dress the girl will be wearing. But that’s about it.

“Geez. You really need to help me out here. I’ve never been to a dance in my life!” I started to panic.

I did not know any men (or boys for that matter) until I was in college.

I did not learn how  to drive until I was over 25.

I have never shaved in my life.

I have never brought up a teenager before.

I have never had to watch somebody grow up so fast. Too fast.

I have never known this subtle, almost imperceptible yet keen once noticed, restlessness inside my gut of pride and fear and joy and sorrow.

 

Nobody ever told me.

No. They don’t.

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By taking them to the exhibit dedicated to the 1980s at Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, of course!

 

I am kidding on the square, seeing how this is a hard glance back at the 1980s with a critical eye: feminism, gender politics, race politics, AIDES, political upheavals in the Latin America, Disappeared, Reaganism, NEA, Robert Mapplethorpe. How do you explain to a young child what happened in the 1980s when all they heard nowadays was how in the 1980s everybody was happy because the economy was great?

It’s kind of scary how little the kids know about what really happened in the 1980s.

It’s also kind of difficult, as a parent, to gauge “how young is old enough” and “how much is too much”. I don’t like to shelter my children but I also want to make sure what I share with them is “age appropriate”…

 

Race politics. Passing. Stereotypes. Racism. Gender politics.

I believe I screamed, just a little, when I saw Adrian Piper’s My Calling (Cards) on display since I’ve used this often as an example of how one performance artist has chosen to deal with racism in mundane, daily life. MCA has them on display, in multiple copies, free for the taking.

 

Coming off from my high, I was immediately put on “high alert” when next we walked into the wing dedicated to “Gender Trouble”. Because of the in-your-face shock value of the protest art, I felt I had to prepare Mr. Monk, who’s in 3rd grade, even though he’s a mature 3rd grader, for the images on display. Here’s what I came up with in a panic:

The rise of feminism means that women artists started questioning the social orders in the society: why are men given more power and authority than women? What makes a man a man? What makes a woman a woman? And that’s why they show the anatomy of human being to confront the man-made meanings and differences between men and women, and that’s why you are going to see a lot of penises.

He dutifully nodded, and laughed to mask his discomfort. Nobody wants to hear their mother utter the word “penis” in public even at a whisper.

As I went through the internal struggle of whether to impose “censorship” on the fly, I instinctively shielded him from an open, video screen room [Later, The Husband told me that the room came with a warning sign outside so I guess my instinct was correct]. Then across the room were these:

 

Robert Mapplethorpe.  The artist that embodied two main Reaganism in the 1980s: the government’s willful negligence towards the Aides epidemic and  its fight to censor what it deemed as “obscene” art. Without thinking, I had strategically positioned myself between these photos and Mr. Monk’s sight line. To this moment, I am still questioning myself whether I had done the right thing: If I disagree with the conservative’s accusation, why did I shield Mr. Monk’s gaze from these pictures, esp. the leather-encased penis? [In my defense, I was not worried about my 13-year old; he roamed through the exhibit without a chaperon]

 

Lots of questions were asked: Why was Reagan’s portrait there? Was it for sarcastic reasons? Why? What did he do? Why were people upset?

What is AIDS?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think Mr. Monk understands this picture or at least walked away with his own interpretation.

Photo Courtesy of The Husband

[After all, he got it when Jack Donaghy said, about Kenneth the Intern, “He’s a white male with hair, Lemon. The sky’s the limit.”]

 

Even though this is a child who is extremely mature for his age, sensitive and observant of the world around him, has watched possibly all episodes of The Simpsons, and Weekend Update on SNL with me, I left the museum still questioning myself: Was is it too much? What is too much? Have I shown my child “age appropriate” material?

 

Photo Courtesy of The Husband

This is such a difficult picture to look at straight on. But it is not difficult to grasp the messages. Should I have shielded him from the ugliness of the world?

 

 

So… 1980s. I almost forgot. It’s not just about the cheesy music, leg warmers and big hairs.

 

 

More pictures from our visit to MCA that day here:

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Confession: I have been obsessed with this website I came across from my 13-year-old’s Facebook wall. It is aptly named “I Waste So Much Time“. Unfortunately for my reputation, it is not a philosophical statement born from my existential angst. They omitted “On the Internet” in the name. This website is “curated” for middle schoolers… And I spent two hours the other night reading the posts and laughing out loud to myself when I should have been in bed. What can I say? Deep down I am a 15 year old boy. *cough* (Only that I do not “take long showers”…) Anyhoo, I saw this post, and it gave me pause.

 

 

This was of course said with pride. On this website and the others popular amongst the Facebook teen generation, such as My Life is Average, being normal means boring, a conformist; being weird means you know who you are, awesome. In fact, the kids who post on MLIA are so unabashedly geeky, smart with a great sense of humor, (and granted, a bit Harry-Potter-obsessed, but hey, they all hate Twilight and that means a lot to me) that I often read those posts to give myself some hope: “These are our future. Maybe one day high schools will not be dominated by drones of jocks and cheerleaders.” And that makes me want to give all those kids a big giant non-creepy bear hug.

I once thought too I would be the weird, cool parent. How many of you thought the same?  I did not even think. I just assumed. No way was I going to be like my parents. My kids are going to love me for how cool I am and we are going to have so much fun together!

The reality is, of course, my kids do not really want cool parents. Or rather, they do not want parents that out-cool them.

They do not appreciate being told that rad was a term popular even before my time.

They do not want you to teach them the correct pronunciation for Meme. (And definitely not the history of it. Who cares that Richard Dawkins came up with this idea in 1976 in his book The Selfish Gene?)

They do not want to admit that you introduced them to Spotify.

They do not want to listen to the cool songs you share with them. But of course they told you about “Pumped Up Kicks” a week after you sent them the song on Spotify.

They do not want your playlists.

They do not want to hear about the latest YouTube sensation from you.

They do not want you to be better at fixing computer than they are. Or to know how to use iTune.

They do not want you to know how to use “I took an arrow to the knee” correctly. (My apology to Skyrim players who are pissed by how this meme has been conveninetly co-opted by those who, like me, have not earned the “right”… Blame websites such as knowyourmeme.com, they have made it way too easy)

They do not want you to know every single Meme or Internet joke or LOLcat, and definitely not before they do.

They do not even want you to be able to say LOLcat correctly.

When you twirl like a crazy child in the living room to whatever music they are playing, they eye you with a bemused expression and possibly even shake their head, and for one moment, they look older than their age.

When you think you are being cool and awesome, you are actually being weird, weird, like really weird, not the cool weird, and you embarrass them.

“Why can’t you be like the other parents?”

They eye you with suspicion or confusion when you slip in a few “youth-oriented” lingo in your conversation.

Do not try to be that cool parent because then you are just a try-hard.

It’s what demarcates the “boundary” between youth and age. We’ve got the experience. We’ve got the dough. We’ve got the authority. Without the coolness factor, what’s left for the young to claim as their own?

 

I have been pondering on these for a long time now but am not able to formulate a cohesive thought around this subject. As I was working on this draft, my 13-year-old walked by and read it out loud, “Our generation today will be the weirdest grandparents… Yup. That’s true.”

“You know,” I said, “When I was your age, I thought I was going to the coolest parent.” Just to burst his bubble (because that’s how we show love in this household).

He laughed. There was a silence.

“Well, you are kind of a cool parent.” He said quietly.

I was made speechless.

Well played, young padawan. Well played.

 

 

 

On a related note, I saw this posted inside the high school my son will be going to. Somehow I know that he will be ok there.

 

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Leaving

March 7, 2011 through the looking glass

    I started getting it, bit by bit, that the thing between parents and children, the thing that ties you together is that all your life, you are forever watching them walking away. [The inadequate, rough translation mine] I read this in a book by Lung Ying-tai, a renowned cultural critic in Taiwan, on […]

50 comments

Mens Size Small

November 16, 2010 no manual for parenting

This Sunday I dragged my kids shopping. I would like to emphasize how unusual this was: I am not crazy. I do not go shopping with them any more because I treasure my sanity and I dislike turning into a banshee inside the store. My secret banshee identity is reserved for inside the house, away […]

13 comments

Last Day of Innocence

June 8, 2010 no manual for parenting

He may not know it but today marked an important milestone in my oldest’s life, and also in our life as parents. My husband walked the boys to the bus stop this morning and he even took some pictures of them together waiting for the bus albeit with his phone*. This will be the last time […]

33 comments

What I learned from the Olympics*… *Not what you think

February 27, 2010 no manual for parenting

We have been watching the Winter Olympics. I didn’t plan to. But what’s not to love really? Finally something on prime time that does not involve dead bodies, sexual predators, or its own mythologies. Naturally I gravitated towards Ice Dancing and Figure Skating. (No, I don’t really want to engage in a debate about how […]

16 comments

Shoes

January 9, 2010 no manual for parenting

Self-denial. This post was supposed to be written last summer, but I got sidetracked. Or it could be that I simply did not want to deal with reality. Up till this summer, I still ordered shoes for my oldest from Lands’ End, BOYS department. I buy almost everything online not wanting to go shopping with […]

26 comments

Left-Handed

November 27, 2009 random

I have been thinking about my parents a lot lately, especially yesterday. Thanksgiving does that to you, I guess. In all honesty, I try not to think about them because when I do, the sense of guilt soon becomes too overwhelming: I have been lost to them since 1993 when I came to the U.S. […]

23 comments

Towards a Discussion of Religious Pluralism with a First Grader. Gingerly.

November 20, 2009 no manual for parenting

Scene 1 On our way home in the car, the 11 year-old lodged an official complaint against his younger brother for embarassing him in school: He talks about God too much. He said things like, “God created everything” in daily, random conversations, without prompting. On top of that, he also sometimes sports a British accent, […]

26 comments