Saturday, June 16, 2012

How to give a mother advice when you aren't one

Earlier this week I went to lunch with two old friends, who happen to be sisters as well as mothers.  We hadn't seen each other in a while and after talking about ourselves at length I felt obligated, if not particularly interested, in asking after their children.  This is how I learned that the tween son of one is excelling academically.  Literally excelling: he plots his grades in an Excel spreadsheet and graphs them to track his progress.  She also reported that he cries if he gets a grade less than 100%.

"That's OK, right?" she asked half-heartedly.

I looked at her sister for a cue on how to respond, but even she wasn't going there.  In any case my friend hadn't left much of a pause for an answer and instead was endeavoring to answer herself with an explanation of how much satisfaction her son gets out of academic achievement, offering the example of his excitement at being accepted at a tony local prep school.  I really wanted to tell her that no, this was not OK.  This was crazy pressure for a twelve-year old to put himself under and was bound to backfire at some point.  Hadn't she read those horror stories about Korean kids committing suicide over their grades???  But instead I just smiled and nodded my head.  Because if there is one thing I know from experience it is that there is precisely no way to give a mother advice when you aren't one.

Just as I sidestepped that minefield I encountered another one.  I wasn't even talking about kids.  I was talking with the other mother -- whose kids she reported were primarily interested in soccer and music in seemingly benign doses -- about a mutual acquaintance who happens to be our next door neighbor.  They are a family of four, lovely in every possible way except for the fact that their home looks like a one-trailer trailer park with the wheels removed from the trailer.  The house -- a typical Santa Monica WWII-era bungalow -- was always a bit rundown, but appears to have gone without any maintenance during the seven years we were away.  The shutters, previously a bit ramshackle, have been removed instead of repaired, leaving rectangles of mismatching paint around the front windows.  The front garden is a weed haven, except for an abundance of cacti that were planted on the left half of it some years ago when, ironically, the wife took a class in sustainable landscape design.  A handful of broken bricks and concrete blocks scattered about complete the overall look.  As I reached the end of my thorough dissing of our mutual acquaintance's failure to keep up property values on our street I was met with a simple shrug from my mother-friend.

"I can relate," she said.  "When you have kids, that kind of stuff just isn't a priority."

This was the point at which I remembered that her house was a little weedy out front.  And felt a little bit like an uptight childless house maintenance Nazi.  It seemed like a good time to ask the other mother more about her son's fabulous new prep school.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Where the Wild Things Are

After seven years away, my husband and I have returned to what had become -- at least in my husband's imagination -- our fabled Santa Monica home.  As I dragged him from England to Berlin to Boston in pursuit of my so-called career, Santa Monica became his Xanadu, a place where the sun always shined and all was well in the world.  Minus the morning marine layer, the former has been true.  The latter a little less so.  This is largely because we had both conveniently forgotten our humble Santa Monica abode is located right next door to an elementary school.  For a parent desperate to get their child into the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District -- as was the case with our reliable renters over the years we were absent -- this location is a real estate boon.  For a childfree couple in their forties, it is a bit of a cruel joke.  Life is like that.

The realities of living adjacent to a schoolyard have been amplified by the fact that I am working from home; when we lived here before I was away at an office for the school day.  Now all that separates me from the savages is a window and a ficus tree-lined chain link fence.  And that has been the most surprising part: six to eleven year-olds are, at least once they get on the playground, complete savages.  The self-consciousness and restraint of adolescence have yet to kick in.  These children shriek and trill and scream with all their might.  They stamp their feet and slam balls with violent force at every available surface, including that ficus-tree lined chain link fence.  On occasion a ball makes its way into our garden.  At first I dutifully returned them.  Then I noticed that my husband had started a collection in the driveway on the other side of the house.  The last time a ball came over, I, with only minimal shame, added it to the driveway collection instead of pitching it back over the fence.  We are well on our way to becoming that house on the street: the one where the mean scary adults live.

Speaking of mean scary adults, last night we attended a Maurice Sendak tribute at a local cinema, a showing of the Where the Wild Things Are.  Despite the fact that the film's protagonist, Max, was an elementary school-aged boy, I loved it.  There was something so poignant and true about seeing adult vulnerabilities and foibles dressed up in monster costumes.  (One of the monsters even shared my husband's name.)  Max ran and screamed and shouted throughout much of the film, but it was over after two hours.  And now I have a whole Sunday of peace and quiet before the savages return to my neighborhood.