Sunday, January 27, 2013

The gateway drug

I've noticed a disturbing trait in A and B lately, and one I hope to nip in the bud. Apparently the preschool that they attend has been encouraging the girls to express themselves, and they're both demanding paper and crayons now and drawing, using their imaginations to create their own pictures of the world around them. Fire engines, rainbows, even pictures of themselves.

This has got to stop.

Drawing is the gateway art; no doubt they'll soon be expressing themselves in dance, music, and even, once they learn more about language, writing. If I let this go on there'll be no hope for them. I know, I know -- when they ask me for paper and crayons I really should take Nancy Reagan's advice and "Just say no"; but they'll learn about it somewhere, either from their friends or, these days, from their teachers. (God knows what kids pick up on the streets these days -- and the Lower East Side of New York, with all those art galleries, is a particularly dangerous neighborhood.) That's the kind of world they're growing up in, and it's all a parent can do to keep them on the straight and narrow path to some kind of productive adulthood, like a career in appliance repair or some other unionized discipline. Anything, really, but art.

My own parents ruined me by bringing me up in a household filled with books and classical music. (I do know, though, that my parents loved me. They permitted me full access to as much TV as I wanted to watch, which fortunately diluted the influence of all this art and allowed me to find a job and a place in society.) When I could have been playing in mud puddles and trying to jimmy open my parents' cocktail cabinet, I was instead listening to Beethoven and Debussy and reading "books" -- longer and longer books, with more and more words. Sure, A Wrinkle in Time and The Phantom Tollbooth seemed innocent enough, but soon it was Thurber and Twain -- I couldn't get through even a single day without my "fix," as I was soon calling it. It was a short step from there to a passion for foreign films and theatre. I finally hit bottom when I very deliberately decided to get a bachelors' degree in languages and literature from a small college -- and I was barely out of my teens.

I do try. Whenever the girls express an interest in "putting on a show" for their parents or guests, or even "making up songs" before bed or demanding "one more book" for me to read before they finish the day, I suggest some other activity. "How about another episode of Curious George or Pound Puppies?" I beg them. "We haven't seen all the Woody Woodpecker shows!" But they're strangely unaffected by my loving but firm parental guidance. Out comes the Madeline book, or Jules Feiffer's Bark, George! (a particularly insidious and subversive story, that one), or, worse, The Cat in the Hat or Green Eggs and Ham.

I'm not sure what to do about all this. As I mentioned above, their school seems uninterested in curbing these dangerous appetites, and my wife is curiously amused when I warn her of these dangers to our children's future. What good is this self-expression going to do when they need to get a job to support me in my old age? And I understand that there are things like "loans" and "scholarships" that might even permit them to attend these liberal arts schools should I refuse to bear the cost.

The next thing you know, my daughters will begin to think they can make a better world. Until then I can only dissuade them from these creative endeavors and channel their energy into more realistic disciplines.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Merry Chanukah

I've been spending most of my time recently issuing clarifications about the season to our two daughters. No, Santa Claus isn't Jesus, all grown up; no, the elves who make the toys are not the apostles. On the other hand, there's no mezuzah nailed to the doorway outside Santa's workshop either. But it's likely that I'm more confused than my daughters. Two-year-old B has recently begun singing this merry holiday ditty, blissfully unaware of the cultural and theological paradoxes contained therein:

Christmas, Christmas, Christmas,
I made you out of clay,
And when you're dry and ready,
With Christmas I will play.

I am (nominally, by baptism if by nothing else) a Christian; my wife is Jewish. Matters of faith however rarely arise when it comes to our kids. Back when Woody Allen told jokes, he had a pretty good one about how he, an atheist, and his wife, an agnostic, used to have bitter fights about what religion not to bring the children up in. We are taking a similarly hands-off tactic. The pre-school that they both attend has a curriculum which teaches them about Jewish cultural traditions, and that's fine by both of us -- I don't care what religion they reject when they get to be teenagers, as long as they know what they're rejecting.

At home the two holiday traditions co-exist pretty happily. We try to keep the menorah far enough away from the Christmas tree so we don't set the entire co-op on fire, but other than that there have been no real conflicts. And now that the girls are old enough, I've been trying to introduce them to the two holiday television shows that I regularly watched when I was growing up. They're both non-denominational, thankfully, up to a point. At my age, I find that the most disturbing part of How the Grinch Stole Christmas is the condition of the Grinch's teeth, but I don't have any theological quibbles with the show otherwise. A Charlie Brown Christmas is okay too, at least up until the point where Linus goes all evangelical on the gang and offers a reading from the Gospel of Luke, not exactly a part of the Torah (though the Whos weren't a member group of the twelve tribes either, if memory serves).

They're old enough for cartoons, not quite old enough for sectarian debate. This, no doubt, will come. But until then I think A and B are far more interested in the presents than the dogma. That's going to be a tough one. Though Jesus was Jewish, things get more complicated from there. Until then, dad will be very very happy just carving up the Chanukah ham.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Testing, testing

To childless adults, the phrase "G-and-T" is a promise of comfort, conjuring up a refreshing cold hard-alcoholic drink that puts you in mind of blissful summer days and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?-style marital arguments. But to New York parents, it's a construction that strikes fear into mothers and fathers who already doubt their own intellectual acumen.

I am referring, of course, to the New York City Department of Education Gifted and Talented program, which "provides challenging instruction to children with exceptional academic capacity." This is the season for applications for admission to this elite. When I was a kid, potential Mozarts and Einsteins were tossed in with the rest of us dullards, left to sink or swim in a sea of pre-pubescent mediocrity. It's also the first confrontation with the encyclopedia of testing acronyms which will follow our kids through their entire academic careers. OLSAT and NNAT2 may mean nothing to the childless classes (except as the names of NASA satellites that explode on the launchpad), but to the rest of us, it's the first step to Harvard.

C and I think our daughters are brilliant and special. All parents think their children are brilliant and special. They're all right. We want to give our kids every opportunity for an excellent education, and if an education is targeted for the "gifted and talented" among us, how can it not be excellent? It takes the DOE to winnow the wheat of humanity from the chaff these days, and they do it with tests.

So I sat down with A, our four-year-old daughter, last week to administer the practice test thoughtfully provided by the DOE, and before too long I was wondering whether any of the experts who put the test together had ever met a four-year-old. The assessment comes in two parts, a verbal and a spatial evaluation. So I patiently sat A down, opened the test booklet in front of her, and asked her the first practice question.

"Okay, here we go," I said, pointing to an illustration on the first page. "Look at the building blocks next to the little chair. Find the number that is right below a heart," I read. "What number is right below a heart?" Then — following the instructions in the booklet (at least I'm good at following instructions, one of the things the test is supposed to evaluate) — I paused for her response.

"Poopy," A responded.

"You're guessing," I gently corrected her. "The correct answer is 'two.' Let's go to the next one. Look at the next row. Look at the box next to the rainbow. The box has letters and circles in it. Tell me the letter that is inside both the circles."

"Poopy!" A suggested.

"Ah, not quite," I said. "Only the letter 'C' is inside both circles. Maybe it's the letters and numbers that are confusing you — let's try one more. Move to the next row. See the pizza? Peter ate the two slices of pizza that you see at the beginning of the row. David ate exactly as many pieces as Peter did. Now, which picture shows the number of slices that David ate?"

"POOPY!" A insisted.

Hoping that colleges still provide full athletic scholarships, I sent A off to another session with The Backyardigans, and with former Lounge Lizard Evan Lurie playing in the background, took a look at the spatial assessment of the test. Pretty soon I was mumbling the blunter adult equivalent of "poopy" myself. The first graphic I turned to was this:

As anybody who knows me will tell you, I'm about the last person to turn to when you need to fit a square peg into a square hole. I like to think of myself as someone who thinks outside the box — but here I was, in a world of boxes. And seeing how my daughters rip apart the cartons from FreshDirect, I know they're no fonder of boxes than I am. Gifted and talented I clearly was not. Soon I joined A on the couch for another thrilling episode of Curious George (whose talent for plumbing equals my own, I observed) and thought I'd better leave this to her mother, who is far more gifted and talented than I am, as life keeps reminding me.

Whether my daughters wind up in the gifted-and-talented program is something, clearly, that's going to be up to them. But even if they don't — if they wind up in the blockheaded-and-moronic program like their father — they're still going to be the most brilliant and special girls in the world. As for me, the next time I have to give the practice test to my girls, I'll make sure I have a bottle of G close to hand (easy on the T, please) to get me through it.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Already embarrassing

If I remain anonymous for now, it's because I know I'll eventually end up being an embarrassment to my two young daughters (A, now four, and B, now two) in some way, and I think I'll save that for when they're a little older and start bringing boyfriends (or girlfriends; I'm a New Yorker after all) home to meet the folks. And now, when I haul out the photo albums, I can linger over the pre-baby as well as the baby pictures — science triumphs, at least when it comes to making adolescent girls angry.

I became a parent late in life, and had never visited the Lower East Side of New York until my wife and I were searching for a Place To Buy about four years ago, just after A was born. Thanks to my friend from college who eventually became a real estate broker, we ended up in a co-op just south of Delancey Street and just north of Chinatown. It's not the kind of place in which I grew up. I was raised in a suburb of Philadelphia in the 1960s — all mown lawns and ranch houses, quiet streets and nights. And, obviously, mostly white and lukewarm Christian, and everybody spoke English.

Not here. Both A and B were born in St. Vincent's Hospital just before it closed two years ago: they're not only New York kids, but Greenwich Village kids. But the whirlwind of heterogeneity just seems to swirl around them and they're not in the least fazed by it. At their preschool they're in class with kids from Asian and European as well as mixed-race backgrounds; they're learning Hebrew and Spanish; among their friends are children with two mommies, children with one mommy and no daddy — and they're not exceptions but the rule. (Not to mention that many of them are artists: they're among bad role models already. It's disastrous enough that daddy's a writer, but mommy's a musician, and their friends are actresses, actors, painters ... and, bearing in mind the challenges of such careers, I'm now hoping that they find some union job. I'm thinking plumbing.)

I'm 50 now, and playing with my two pre-school daughters makes me wish I was ten years younger, at least. Not because I can't enter imaginatively into their games, but because biology makes the body strong when young, when people usually have their children. I'm aware that Tony Randall fathered a child when he was 78, but you don't see a lot of photos of him giving his kids piggy-back rides. And the path is different too. When I started college my father was only 49. When A and B are on their way to college I'll be nearly 70. And it could be worse — they could be boys. On the other hand I have developed remarkable upper body strength over the past few years, bent over diaper tables and hoisting these kids into the air, some recompense for the onslaught of seemingly thousands of poopy-dipes I've had to change since 2008.

Well, the spirit is willing and the flesh is weak. Sympathetic friends tell me that if I don't have the stamina I used to have, I can at least give my daughters the benefit of the worldly wisdom I've accumulated over the past half-century. When they do tell me this, I nod and chuckle and quickly change the subject. The problem with parenting is that you're never old enough to be a parent, and there's no source of worldly wisdom anywhere: you're on your own, and if you remember what your own parents did to you, you're certainly not going to turn to them for advice on how to raise your children. The bookstores are only worse. When C became pregnant with our first child, I went to a bookstore (one of those things that won't exist when my daughters are a little older, like dial telephones and modesty) and was astonished by the shelves upon shelves of books containing parenting advice. They're all wrong. And the reason I know this is that because if one book was right, that would be the only book anybody would want. So, on the advice of our obstetrician, we decided to play it by ear. It was the only good advice we got.

There aren't many books about fathering, anyway. Michael Lewis published an amusing book a few years ago called Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood, and a little off the beaten track is Man with a Pan, John Donohue's excellent collection of essays about fathers who cook for their families. But advice? Hardly. Comfort, yes — but only because they share the feeling of bemused and anxious confusion that is the lot of all young fathers. And, take it from me, older ones, too.

So Lower East Side Dad will be a chronicle of my own bemused and anxious confusion, which should embarrass my daughters even more, let alone my wife. On the other hand, perhaps we're doing something right. Not long ago, our daughter A looked up from her drawing at the kitchen table and said to us thoughtfully, "You know, it's okay to be shy." She paused, then added: "And different." I think the wisdom's going to come from them to us, rather than the other way around.