A Memory

I have very few full sensory memories.  You know the kind:  a memory so vivid, decades later you can still see, feel, smell, hear and taste everything about it. 

Most of the ones I have are related to various traumas, things like fires and death and trucks hauling away possessions because of bankruptcy.  There are happy ones, too – it doesn’t matter that we lost the videotapes of when the kids came off their respective  planes from Korea…the memory is as fresh in my mind as the day it happened.

But one of my most vivid memories is of a winter Saturday many, many years ago. The situation was neither ecstatic or traumatic.  In fact, it was kind of mundane.  Yet, the memory has been popping into my head with regularity lately. 

I was, I think, around 10.  My dad had taken me with him to work.  Many times, during the boom times, his work would carry over into the weekend.  Looking back with the knowledge of a harried parent, I realize that my folks probably had a “childcare situation” that weekend. 

Regardless, I was there at the small machine shop my dad had worked at his entire adult life (in the end, it was almost 40 years).  There were a few other men there as well, but the place felt empty.  It was, really, a big, open warehouse.  It was cold – I remember the place had little heating or air conditioning, if it had anything at all. 

I remember the sounds: WSM played in the background, and at the time my dad HATED country music.  Mixed in were the loud sounds of lathes and grinders and machines being tested.  Every now and then, a curse word would waft around the cavernous building when a machinist made a mistake.

I remember seeing huge stacks of metal beams against one wall.  I remember trying to lift just one side of a single beam, and realizing where my dad’s muscles came from.  There was the small office where the same secretary had worked as long as I could remember. 

When the lathe was running, it was hard not to get a metallic taste in your mouth.

And I really remember a certain smell.  It is fixed in my mind because I have not encountered it since.  It was an odd combination of grease and welding smoke, and the particles that drift into the air when a piece of metal is on the lathe or the milling machine, and stale coffee and cigarettes.

It’s so weird.  35 years later, and I can still smell it like I was there.

I remember being fascinated by what my dad did, and how the other men looked to my father with professional respect, even though looking back, I realize he was not quite 30 yet.  My dad was a very, very good machinist.  Other good machinists could work to tiny tolerances.  Dad could get you to somewhere about .10 mm.  

But, his hands were callused and had been injured more times than any of us could count.  There were many times my dad went to the emergency room because he had run a file or other object through his hand.

He loved it.  He hated it.

And there I was, an impressionable young buck, just watching him work.  The day passed quickly (I think it was a half day), then, we got some lunch (a treat in the days before drive-thrus) and went home.

I did not know at the time that his trade, machining by hand, was dying off.  CNC was already taking over the industry.  I don’t know how my dad’s employer hung on as long as they did (they finally folded in 2000).  I know they had some good men working for them, though.

Memories of that day often come into my mind when I least expect it.

My own kids are junior high age, an age where things like class and station seem like life and death issues.  They are going through many of the things I did at the time.  Most of their peers are the children of professionals: doctors, lawyers, leaders of business, with a country star or two thrown in.

I know they look at me and the life I’ve given them, and find it lacking.  It is a kind of cosmic justice, because I did the same at that age.  I thought my dad was pretty smart for what he did, but real smart people, in my mind, were lawyers and politicians and the kind of people you saw on TV. 

Certainly, they didn’t have working class southern accents or wear shirts with their first name stitched onto a badge.

So, I set out to become one of those people I thought were “smart”.  I took Latin, and joined the debate team and purged my southern accent. 

The latter is one of the few regrets I have in life.

It wasn’t until later, when struggling with a tricky trigonometry problem for well over an hour – my dad overheard my fretting, and immediately did the problem in his head.  He had, and still has, genius in him, but I had so limited my definition of “smart”, I couldn’t see it.

It was later, upon reflection of all of this, that I decided that my one of my missions in life was to find the genius in every person I met.  Let me tell you, if you get to know a person and cannot find their genius, you haven’t looked hard enough.  I have found it in dishwashers and in prisoners.  I’ve even found it in a couple of lawyers I know.

I am convinced that our society’s definition of “smart” is far too limited.  I see it in snarky blog comments about misspelled protest signs, as if mastery of the English language is the only indicator of intelligence which allows the bearer to be worthy of having a say in the ordering of his own life.  I see it in the devaluation of honest work; any job that requires less than a college degree is called a “sh*t job”, and those who work in “trades” or other non-professional jobs are considered victims or unworthy rednecks.

Every time some snotty blogger insults a working class person who dares to ask for a seat at the table and common respect on his own terms, I think of my father, and how my repudiation of him hurt him, and how sorry I am for that time in our relationship.

It’s weird how it all catches up with you, though.  I didn’t become a lawyer, as I had planned.  I ended up becoming a computer programmer, which is my own generation’s version of a skilled trade.  Oftentimes, when complaining about software architects who have given me specifications that I instinctively know will not work, I catch myself saying some of the exact things my dad used to say about engineers.

There is a certain peace in that, knowing your place in the world, and how it fits with where you came from, and being proud of it.

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Doubt

I have several blog/Facebook/Twitter/real-life friends who are each having a rough patch in his/her job as a parent.  When speaking to many of them, I realized that they might see me as one who maybe cannot empathise, because I seem like I have it together, and my kids are doing so well in school and in life.

Let’s just say I put up  a pretty good front.  And I think I do my fellow parents a disservice in the process. 

I can tell you this: from the moment a couple find out a baby is on the way, life is one long exercise in self-doubt.  It NEVER GOES away.  And the world is filled with people who are more than willing to feed and reinforce that doubt.

  • If circumstances keep us from breastfeeding, will the baby be malnourished or underdeveloped? Soy or Similac?
  • Do I circumcise my boy, and scar him emotionally for life? Or leave him uncircumcised, and make him more susceptible to infections?
  • If we do not co-sleep, will the baby have bonding issues and turn into a serial killer? If we do, will she be clingy and never become independent?
  • Do we “Ferberize”? Oh, God, he’s SCREAMING in there! Are you sure we’re doing the right thing?
  • If I put her in daycare, will I be letting strangers raise her? If I don’t, how the heck can I afford all these diapers and all this formula? If we keep her home, will she be developmentally behind those who go to preschool?
  • Do I give him gun toys when he begs? Will he grow up and go an a shooting spree? Or, if I raise him androgynously, am I just setting him up to get the crap beat out of him later?
  • Do I reinforce social stereotypes and give her a doll when she begs? If I don’t, am I killing her maternal instinct (which she’ll most likely need later)?
  • Do we enroll him in public school, meaning he’s very likely going to need some remedial education when he gets to college (as I did), or impoverish ourselves and enroll him in private school, meaning he’ll always be a step below his classmates on the economic scale (which becomes VERY important in the middle school ages)?
  • Do we dive headlong into our internationally adopted children’s “home” culture, and if we do, what do we do when they reject that culture and just want to go get a hamburger?
  • Do we intervene in every conflict she has, to protect her, or do we let it play out to teach her independence and conflict resolution?  Where is that line?
  • Do I buy those $100 shoes, or attempt to teach him the value of being yourself over trying to fit in?  In middle school isn’t that like trying to grasp the wind?  Will he get put in the lower tiers of the school social hierarchy over it?  Am I really prepared to let him become an outcast over this?  Is it worth it?
  • How do we handle the kids’ appetites?  Indulge them too much, you’ve hamstrung them (both socially and health-wise) by letting them get overweight (fair or not, that’s the way it is).  Obsess over it, and one day, they check your daughter into rehab because she has anorexia.
  • Do I let him go to the sleepover, knowing a kid with really bad behaviors will be there?  Or do I trust that he’ll follow my teaching about what’s right and wrong?  When is the right age to do this?
  • Do I hold fast to my rule about piercings and makeup, when the fact that all of her friends are doing them makes my policy so arbitrary? 
  • Do we let them see that really “important” movie which teaches a valuable social or political lesson, even if it means exposing them to R-rated language, sex and violence?
  • DO we make a big deal over his race, or downplay it as much as possible?  If we downplay it, are we setting up identity issues later?
  • What if he’s a little overweight, but refuses to participate in any sport or physical activity?  Do you force it on him for his own good?
  • Do we join the herd and get them cell phones (which really come in handy when everybody is traveling around willy nilly with activities), or teach the kids an important lesson about frugality?
  • How do we handle church when they start to hate it?  Force them to go and participate, and you end up with classic, predictable PK behaviors.  Let them drop out, and you lose a valuable moral support system at the age the kids most desperately need it.
  • How much of our politics do we pass down to them, while still letting them find their own voice?  What if mom and dad disagree about an issue?  How do you present it to the children objectively?
  • Do you let them work part time, to learn the value of labor and money, or do you stress that academic study is their job, and provide everything for them?
  • How much “sex talk” is enough?  If you’ve covered most of it (but not all), and the kid rolls his eyes and says he already knows the rest and insists you respect his privacy and quit talking about it, do you press on anyway?  Do you give him a test and let him CLEP his way out of it?

…this only scratches the surface, and I’ve just gotten to puberty.  I’m sure Susie and Busy Mom could add a LOT more.

The doubt will drive you insane if you let it.  The only way to stay sane is to pick a path and hope you’ve chosen wisely.  If you haven’t, backtrack if you can, and try not to sweat it if you can’t.

I recently was racked with doubt when I did a study of our finances, since money has been running short lately.  It was quite a shock to see it there in paper: I spend around 40% of my take home pay to send my kids to private school.  And most high schools are around double what we’re paying now.  That’s just not sustainable.  I am scrambling to find savings elsewhere in the budget, and maybe find one more source of income.

Add to that the fact that some of my friends (like Susie) have kids graduating from public school, and they are such intelligent, well behaved, fine young men and women.  (Having great, dedicated parents is probably the biggest factor).

So I am really, really doubting the path we’ve chosen. 

Yet, it has always been very, very important to us to surround our kids with a world that has college and high achievement as an expectation.  It was not (an expectation) for me when I was growing up, so as soon as things got difficult, I bolted.  Whn I had kids of my own, I swore my they would not have college held as just another thing you might do when you turn 18.

Also, for Lintilla, putting our kids in that world of high-acheivement expectation is non-negotiable, so I’m going to have to make it work somehow.

Then, last week I’m persuing a blog I really love to read (always with a grain of salt), and in the comments of a particular rambling post, the conversation amongst the participating academics (most of them childless), turned to how their worst, I think the word was “uninteresting”, students were those who were raised with an expectation, as opposed to a hope, of college.

The timing of my reading that comment was quite poor.  I may have done damage to a nearby wall – it’s all a bur.

It took me over a week to come to the realization that this is cheap pontification – it costs the participants nothing.

Oh, those wacky parents, always permanently messing up their kids and sending them off to us to teach, tee, hee.

I can tell you, those of us who stand before you covered in the spittle and pee and feces, with baby food in our hair, and uneraseable  crayon art on our walls, who bear the scars of every tear and “I hate you!”, who have endured the stares from all the people who were sure we were parenting wrong, who really would like to recover from a sleepless night of worry, but we can’t because we have to help with algebra which is due tomorrow although we only just found out about today, who aren’t sure from one moment to the next if they are supposed to be chauffer of referee, who have anxiously rushed a kid to the hospital one day, sick with worry, only to be called “the worst parent ever” the next, who work two or three jobs just to give their kids every chance to be able to make it in the world…

We are not amused.

Don’t get me wrong – parenthood is as rewarding as it is hard – even moreso. 

But, after reading those comments, it tore me up inside so much that I really didn’t sleep for a week.  My doubt, though, has settled into anger.

You can second guess the parents you see, you can even second guess your own parents and blame them for all of your shortcomings.  Just know that whatever they did wrong in your eyes – it was not flippant.  I can guarantee you they worried and prayed and lost sleep, and did what they thought was right, all the while doubting themselves.

All a parent can really do is what Rhett Butler did in Gone With The Wind: bow low to our accusers, apologize for our shortcomings, and walk away.  They really won’t understand until they’re in our shoes.