Friday, September 14, 2012

Jazz and Gender Stereotypes

A friend and I were recently discussing last spring's dance recital. She told me when my child's jazz class came out, someone sitting near her commented, "What kind of mother let's her SON take jazz?" My friend responded, "I know that kid. He plays hockey all winter, does jazz, and plays lacrosse." 


My son on stage with his friend.
That kid is my kid and those things are all true. I appreciate my friend standing up for my son, but I have to ask why is that necessary? If my son didn't play "manly" sports would taking jazz be wrong? What if he played with dolls or dressed up in princess costumes (something he did when he was younger)? We live in a society that sets up male and female roles from an early age. I was appalled when shopping at Toys R US years ago to see that something as gender-neutral as the Fisher Price Phone was made in primary colors for boys and pink for girls. And so, I'm writing an open letter to that person.

To the close-minded person at the jazz recital:

What kind of mother lets her son take jazz you ask? I'll tell you.  My son is beautiful and graceful when he dances. He is an athlete in the purest sense. When he moves, whether dancing or running, it is a sight to behold. He loves dancing. He dances around the house and I am struck by his sense of movement and rhythm. As soon as he hears music, his body moves. I let my son take jazz because I'm the kind of mother who looks at her children and sees their strengths and supports them.

When I first suggested dance class, my son responded, "Boys don't dance." How sad that he almost missed an opportunity to do something he enjoys because of people like you who put boys and girls into neat little categories. I pulled up videos of Baryshnikov and Nureyev to show him that boys do, indeed,dance. And the ones that are really good can make a living at it and win world-wide fame and respect. This is not to say that I think my son will be the next Baryshnikov, nor would I push him in that direction. But I wanted him to know that if he liked it, dance was an option for him. I let my son take jazz because I'm the kind of mother who doesn't have pre-conceived notions of what my child will be and am open to letting him explore his interests.

My son is a middle-child. He has an older brother who excels in the classroom, whereas he struggles. He has a younger brother who demands time and attention. My middle son feels adrift--he thinks he's dumb and doesn't get enough attention. While he plays soccer with his older brother, he doesn't see this for the accomplishment it is, playing up a level. He just sees that he and his brother are evenly matched on the soccer field. He was feeling very down about himself. I felt having an area where he could excel, and not be in competition with his brothers, would help his self-esteem. I let my son take jazz because I'm the kind of mother who finds opportunities for her children to flourish and feel good about themselves.


Look how happy he is!
I'm also the kind of mother who is angered by your thoughtless comment. That one single comment, if made in the presence of my child, would undo the things I was trying to accomplish. It seems to me your sole concern is to criticize my parenting because of some misguided notion that dancing in a costume on stage will make my child grow up to be gay. If my child is gay, he's already gay. No amount of exposure to traditionally "girly" things will cause him to be gay if he isn't. Just like no amount of exposure to "manly" pursuits will cause a gay man to turn straight. It's predetermined at birth. I let my son take jazz because I'm the kind of mother who will accept my child no matter his sexual preferences as long as he is happy, loving, kind, thoughtful, and respectful.

Apparently, you didn't have a mother like me. 

Sincerely, 

The mother of the boy in jazz class

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Roller coasters, racial slurs, and the loss of innocence

The Comet
Yesterday we went to The Great Escape and had a wonderful day. At the end of the day, Baker and Glen went to ride the Comet one last time while I took Jamie and Emery to buy some fudge. We waited for them to meet us so we could head to the car. And we waited, and waited, and waited. When they finally showed up, they had a story to tell.


The roller coaster broke down on the lift hill. The attendants asked everyone to sit calmly while maintenance came to fix it. Some people started yelling and cursing. One guy got out and jumped off. More yelling. Then a verbal fight broke out between the people in front of Baker and Glen and the people behind them. One group was a black father, son, and uncle. The other a white woman. Curses filled the air: f-bombs, the C word, crack whore, and the n-word. Glen tried to remind these adults there were children present, but to no avail. Instead of fixing the coaster, maintenance had to escort all the people off the coaster and close the ride. As these people were getting off the ride, the argument escalated to the point where Glen thought it would become physical. They didn't stay around to find out. The police were called for the guy who jumped. In hearing the telling, it was an exciting adventure for Baker.


Glen relayed the language usage to me. I told Baker if he had any questions about the words that were used to ask me later and we'd talk about it. On the way to Saratoga, Emery fell asleep in the car and Jamie was close. Baker asks timidly, "can we talk about the words?" I told him when we were home. In quiet times throughout the evening, as we ate and watched fireworks, he asked a few more times. I knew at that point what he witnessed was bothering him.


When we got home, I told him to tell me what words he had questions about. A few weren't really curse words--darn, heck. He asked about jackass. Those were the ones he remembered. I knew he had heard the n-word and I felt I should explain that one. When I asked him about it, he didn't even realize it was a bad word. Glen and I explained it was one of the worst. We started to explain why it is so derogatory. Having read Harry Potter, he immediately jumped to the analogy of the word mudblood in the wizarding world. I told him some words, like damn and hell are okay to say in private--like when someone cuts you off on the highway or you stub your toe. But that word is never to be used and if he ever hears a friend use it he should tell them it isn't nice. I think he understood.


I also think this was an eye-opening experience for him. I don't think the language bothered him as much as witnessing adults acting like middle-school bullies. He focused on the language, but at heart, I think he was trying to process how adults could behave that way. We also talked about that...that some people never grow up and learn better ways to deal with things. I think Glen and I handled it as best we could. But it is another step away from the innocence of childhood. And it is another reminder of how little control we, as parents, have over situations. We cannot control what our kids will be exposed to. All we can do is be there for them and help them process it.


Here is a link to someone's YouTube video of the incident. You can see Glen and Baker in the opening.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Why It Is Hard Being a UU

Anyone who knows me knows I'm very involved in our church, the Unitarian Universalist Society of Schenectady. Recently, a friend, who is looking for a new place of worship, asked about our church. It is always a sticky situation for Unitarian Universalists, or UUs, to define what we believe. We are much more inclined to outline what we don't believe. 

I grew up exposed to the Catholic Church and Southern Baptists through my grandparents. Except for major holidays, my parents had no affiliation or desire to attend church, so any religious upbringing I had was provided by my grandparents. Both churches were very dogmatic. Both have rules and rituals. If you are Catholic, you know what you can and can't do, and if you make a mistake, as humans do, you go to confession and your sins are absolved. If you're a Baptist, again, the rules are clear. Jesus is your savior and you don't drink or dance. At least, these were my perceptions as a child and from hearing my parents' stories. While those are childish simplifications, there is some truth to those perceptions. Both churches, like many world religions, follow a document: the Bible, Quran, Torah or the Upanishad to name a few. Each religion has clearly defined "rules" and rites: confession, Rosary, Bar Mitzvah, Confirmation, and more. Each service is conducted in the same manner each week. The theme may be different, but the format doesn't vary. There is a comfort in that. And, most world religions are pretty sure where we end up in the end. 

As a religion, Unitarian Universalists have no set dogma. Our services look different from week to week, though there are a few things that are standard, such as sharing our joys and sorrows or speaking our Bond of Union in community. We take wisdom from all the aforementioned texts, as well as Buddhist, secular, Native American, and more. We even garner wisdom from our fellow members. As a group, we have no single idea about an afterlife, and, therefore, we concern ourselves with the here and now. That doesn't mean there is consensus on how we should live our lives. So what connects us and guides us? We have seven principles that we follow. They are:
  1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

These principles guide us on our journey through this life. They ask that we constantly look at our actions and assess if we are living these principles. They ask us to examine our thoughts and beliefs continually. One might come to our church a confirmed atheist and, while attending, find he does believe in a higher purpose or being. Conversely, one might come to believe there is no god, but only the here and now. Either way, there is a constant evolution of thought and belief. There is no fixed idea of how to behave or how to put these principles in action. But, there is a belief that trying to follow these, as we see them, brings us peace on this earth and helps us leave it a better place. We believe following these principles helps us evolve and come to know some higher truths. There are no easy answers and it is a path that requires much work and effort.

Each week we say our bond of union. Each UU church has their own bond of union: a congregational covenant. This is not a static document. In fact, a few years ago, we added a line to ours after much congregational debate and input. It reads:

Love is the spirit of this church,
the quest for truth is its sacrament,
and service is its prayer. 

To dwell together to in peace,
to seek knowledge in freedom,
to serve humanity in fellowship
to care for the earth in stewardship
that all may grow in harmony with the good.

Thus do we covenant with one another.

And here is the crux of the difference between being a Unitarian and any other denomination. Our bond of union is written in the active voice: to dwell, to seek, to serve, and to care. We are called to actively live our principles on a daily basis. We are involved in covenant circles, groups that explore our personal beliefs. We participate in campaigns for marriage equality, clean-up efforts for disaster victims, Crop Walks, service trips to New Orleans or Guatemala, and other forms of social action. We have a Green Sanctuary that promotes efforts to improve the environment. This is not to say that other religious groups don't do some of these things. They often do. But, it is more passive. They aren't reminded of it on a weekly basis. The height of a Catholic service is the Eucharist: Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. The congregation is passive and it is the job of Jesus to save them and the world. Jesus sacrificed himself for Christians. While they may be called to serve by following Jesus's example, they are not called to question their beliefs or text. Metaphorically, other religions are sitting on the ship of life, following a map to a known destination. Unitarians are fighting the current, turning where they think they should, not sure where they'll end up, calling on those seven principles and the wisdom of the ages to help them steer a course. 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Banishing the Screaming Banshee Inside

Last week I came to horrible, startling truth. We have become a family of yellers. I'm not sure when exactly I became a full-time yeller or when the habit extended to my children and husband, but in a moment of shocked recognition, I realized we were. I'm sure, like many bad habits, it started out slowly--occasionally raising my voice to get my children's attention. As yelling seemed to be effective, it started to take place of the calmer, albeit slower, process of talking and working through issues. And while yelling does get their attention after asking three, four, or 20 times for them to clean their rooms, come for dinner, stop hitting their sibling or whatever infraction they have perpetrated, it is also damaging to the relationship we all have as a family. I hear Baker yelling at Emery, and I know that is my voice coming out of his mouth. I hear Jamie scream at Glen or I when he is upset about something, and I know we have taught him that. I also know that being tired and over-extended has caused me to rely on poor skills.

Last week I was caught up short when I realized I would never yell at the two children I watch the way I yell at my own kids. Their mother would fire me on the spot if I yelled at them like I yell at Baker, Jamie, and Emery. And yet, I continue to yell at and berate my own children for mistakes they make. Why? The answer is easy: no one can get under your skin like your own children. It is an easy trap to fall into, a hard habit to break, understandable, and still wrong. I had really been thinking about the fact that my life had taken on run-a-way train proportions--too many commitments, too many projects--when I had this realization. The following day, I heard my husband yelling at my oldest like I've never heard him yell before. I was deeply saddened by the realization that we all seem to be mad at each other all the time. I did some reading on yelling. One article clearly stated that verbal abuse can be just as detrimental as physical abuse. A quote by Lao Tse, often heard in our church, kept echoing through my mind:

If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.

If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.

If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.

If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.

If there is to be pe
ace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.

There has not been peace in my heart of late and, therefore, there has been no peace in our home. After hearing my husband yell, I vowed that there would be no more yelling. It has been a week and so far, with one or two missteps that were quickly corrected, I have kept that promise to myself. I have made an attempt to cut back on the things that I can and I've committed to focusing on the things that are truly important to me. It isn't an easy commitment to make. I'm constantly being asked to get involved with things at school and church. I have things I want to do and my family wants to do. It is hard to say "no" sometimes, especially to family and friends. But, I realize now, more than ever, that my children are following my lead and I haven't been happy with some of the places I've led them to. It is time to take a more thoughtful path instead of meandering, somewhat aimlessly, where ever the wind takes us. I am trying to create the time and space to be thoughtful about how I handle things, so I do not fall back on yelling as a coping mechanism.

I have felt better about the relationship I have with my children this last week than I have in awhile. Though they are still yelling at each other and us, I have met it with calm. I have questioned them on their feelings, and asked how they think their actions are making the people around them feel. I know it will take awhile to effect some permanent change, but I am feeling good about this commitment and trying to create a home filled with peace and love.

If we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can smile and blossom like a flower, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace. -Thich Nhat Hanh

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Magic is an Illusion

Almost a year to the date, I blogged about how wonderful our first trip to Disney was. On our way home, we had already begun planning our next trip. We talked about it and looked forward to it all year. Glen and I planned it in secret, surprised the boys the day we left, and spent a week at Disney. The weather was perfect and our hotel was much nicer than last year's (we stayed at Port Orleans--Riverside). The Magic Kinddom stayed open an hour later one night, just because, and we got to re-ride the Kali River Rapids 5 times in a row! All of our meals were excellent and we had prime seats for Epcot's fireworks. Jamie rode his first big roller-coasters and Emery even got to ride a few of the bigger rides. On paper, it was a magical vacation. So why am I left with a sense of disappointment?

I've gone over in my mind why I didn't have as good a time this year. The kids' behavior wasn't as good on this trip--despite better sleeping arrangements, they seemed more tired and cranky. Glen assures me this was the case on the first trip and I just forgot how bad they were the first few days. Perhaps. There seemed to be more smokers and that is something that drives me crazy. The people who worked there didn't seem to have the Valium-induced smiles plastered on their faces, either. I think hardly anyone wished me a "magical day." Our last day there, I found out they changed their meal plan policy and the leftover quick-service meals I had planned to use for Rice-Krispie Mickey Mouse souvenirs couldn't be used. All minor things, but they seemed to weigh on my mind.

Still, none of this seems good cause for my negative feelings about the trip.--feelings none of my other family members share. There has to be more. I've been struggling lately with the discrepancy between the values I have and the reality we are living. I want to scale back and live more simply. I want my children to appreciate the value of what they have and I feel like this trip illustrated how far I am from that goal.

When we told them we were going, Jamie's first response was, "no, I want to go to Hershey." There was no gratitude, just the desire for something other than what he was receiving. They squabbled over who got more treats, who got more snack, who got more rides, who got more time with daddy, or who got to be first in line. If something could be made into a point of contention, it was. They wandered around the parks as if they owned them. There was no concern for bumping into people or walking in front of someone taking a picture.


So, instead of vacation being a break from daily issues, this year, it seemed to magnify them. I found myself thinking about how expensive the trip was and how little appreciated my time and energy in planning it were. And I realize the fault lies in my perception of incidents on the trip more so than objective reality. I saw other parents whose kids behavior was far worse and parents whose level of frustration was far greater. It doesn't change the fact that my children's behavior on the trip mirrored some bigger concerns I've been having.

Now I'm faced with what to do with these feelings. How do I change our day-to-day life to better reflect the values that I think are important? How do I better instill those values? How do I ensure our next vacation is one I can enjoy?