As much as I like to think of myself as nonjudgmental and open to learning each person's unique identity regardless of their appearance and context, man, I am not. Every day I'm reminded that I make snap judgments like an IHOP line cook makes pancakes - automatically, neatly, while asking myself, "wait, did I wash my hands after I pooped?"
People surprise me all the time. Take Joe.
Joe works for a fencing company.
Joe writes brief, polite, professional emails with some minor spelling mistakes and a comma splice.
Joe signs his emails "Semper Fidelis."
Joe calls when he's going to be 10 minutes late to our scheduled appointment and calls me "ma'am."
Joe has a shaved head under his Seahawks cap, paint-stained jeans, well-loved leather boots, and a 99-cent Steno pad whose price I know because of the large red sticker on its cover.
Okay. So we know who Joe is. Right?
These are some things that Joe said during our one-hour conversation over coffee in my kitchen.
"You know, I have two boys too. It's hard out there on boys. I always tell them, it's okay to cry and have strong feelings, son. Hell, I cry more than most of the women I know, and I think it's a sign of strength and honesty when you're able to express how you're feeling. Plus, it's how we all know we're humans and in this together."
"My boys can't even play football, they're so compassionate. I think it's wonderful. They can't stand to see people get hurt. They like to write stories and we invent games together, games with puzzles and logic where we have to work together as a team. Sometimes we go on hikes through the cemetery and imagine who these people were, and pull weeds and leave flowers on graves that are bare."
"When my wife left me, I was destroyed. It was really hard to get up every day and do what I had to do, my work, my family, with this heavy load of guilt on my shoulders. I took her for granted. I wish I'd been the kind of man who could have heard how unhappy she was. We're friends now."
"I heard about this book on Oprah - The Power of Now - have you read it? I think you'd really like it."
"People assume I'm a Republican because I'm a former Marine and I teach tactical combat training, and yes, I do support the right of Americans to bear arms - legally and responsibly. But I'm an independent because a long time ago I realized that each person joins a party for his or her own reasons that we'll never know, and joining a party isn't hard. It's not like they have to pass a character test or an IQ test or do much of anything except write a bunch of checks. Besides, if I were going to be a single-issue voter, it wouldn't be guns - it would be war. I've seen war, and it's a crime, no matter what, no matter who, no matter where. I can't vote for any person who wants to send us to war, especially not a war over pride or money."
Okay. So we didn't know who Joe was. Fence-Building Marine Joe turned out to be Sensitive Pacificst Self-Aware Oprah-Fan Joe. Surprised? I sure was. I actually said, "I'm sorry, I can't believe you're recommending a book you heard about on Oprah. I just wouldn't have thought, you know, I have a hard time picturing you like on the couch watching Oprah like 'huh! That book sounds really interesting! I'm going to jot that title down.'"
He laughed with me and nodded, and then he said, "Well, seems to me a person should be lots of things."
I'm assuming you probably burst into tears and your brain exploded and your heart cracked open and you needed a moment after you read that to recombobulate. You good?
A person should be lots of things. Damn, Joe. That's deep.
How this idea relates to me is a topic worth exploring, but don't worry, I won't be doing that on your time, unless you're Ryan, in which case yep, I will definitely be doing that on your time. Loveyoumeanit!
I'm not thinking about me right now - I'm thinking about my kids.
I've written before about how easy and sometimes necessary it is to quickly place people in general categories: she probably has a spare diaper I will go to her for help, he seems creepy I will wait for him to leave before I go out to my car, that mom needs a hand I will make eye contact and smile. We all shorthand each other - moms at the park, kids in bouncy houses, and really just kids anywhere, kids on the loose, soaring on the winds that gust through the unblemished and blessed childhood plains of giving no fucks about social mores or other people's expectations.
I have strong opinions about people making snap judgments about me and my kids. But sadly, I no longer flutter and soar on those give-no-fucks childhood breezes, so I rarely drop those strong opinions on others. I save that for you, Ryan. And you, blog reader.
I don't want to start a fight with people who say things like, "oh, he's the charmer," about Buster, as if Chicken and his enormous eyes and dimples and functioning hearing, were not sitting with his hand on Buster's knee, making sure his little brother doesn't stand up and fall out of the double-wide Costco shopping cart basket.
It happens all the time, though, and not just with strangers, and not just when people are picking on my kids for being rowdy. Even compliments grate, when they're labels instead of observations. Chicken's "the thinker," and Buster's "happy-go-lucky." Chicken's "the genius," and Buster's "the clown." Chicken's "tall and slim like his Daddy," and Buster, "is a bruiser, but he'll lean out eventually, don't worry. He'll be a great football player!" Sure... or painter!
Maybe I should carry a wallet card around with a link to my Wild Things blog post to explain to strangers that yes, Buster is high-energy, sometimes, today, right now maybe, but he also picks dandelions and holds intimate, hushed tete-a-tetes with his plastic dog.
But right now, when I find myself in a situation in which I have to explain my children, explain myself, and remain faithful to my values and my need to protect my children from unfair labeling, in ten seconds or less, I usually do the following:
1. In passing encounters, I rely heavily on mugging facial expressions that combine both exasperation and good humor.
|he loves to play this game|
where he's a tiger
the thing the tiger is biting
and then i screeeeeeam
it's a game
a fun game
no i'm glad we're here
in line with you
let's talk about
2. I'll often make reference to a temporary source of stress or mania - he just ate a donut. He skipped his nap. He found my bottle of 2 o'clock pills.
That way I acknowledge the disruptive behavior that would be cause for a fair and legal straightjacketing if a teenager were doing it, appease the concerns or address the snap judgment of a stranger, but I do not betray my child by saying, "YEP! He's an ass hole!"
3. If a stranger just comes up and declares Chicken, "a real pistol," and Buster, "a sweet angel," I take my cue from my friend Liz and say, "yeah, sure... FOR NOW. Come home with me and I'll show you how stable this good cop-bad cop dynamic is. The situation is fluid." Then I remember that most people are just looking for something to day and haven't thought about how powerful a force expectations can be on these ferocious and tender little saplings, and I say, "I forgive you."
4. With people that I'll definitely see again and my children will know by name - babysitters, teachers, relatives, well-meaning friends who have just never thought about this, or passive-aggressive frenemies - the stakes get higher but the lines get clearer. Mugging, joking, avoiding, or blaming donuts aren't bad choices, but if this is an issue that bothers you, all of those responses give an implicit green-light to future statements wrapping your brilliantly woven tapestry of a child in one, big, dull, moving company couch blanket. I say be honest and assume they haven't considered why this is important to you.
I usaully go with a straightforward, "we try to avoid making those kinds of generalizations about our kids, especially in front of our kids. It's really important to us that we make a distinction between their behavior and their core identities, and it's also really important to us that we not create a "mythology" for them that they then feel they must fulfill."
Then I tell the story of the day I had to wrap my arms around my 2-year-old Chicken to keep him from jumping onto a pile of 4-month-old babies at Gymboree. "But I'm a crazy train!" he said. And that was the day we stopped calling him "Crazy Train," two words I always said with a smile and a hug, but which he internalized, so fast. My bad. That one's on me, guys.
With my kids, I make a point of telling them every day that I like them just the way they are.
I make a point of trying to narrate rather than state conclusions. "Chicken and Buster are jumping on the couch and giggling and screaming with joy" leaves them free from the label that "Chicken and Buster are crazy guys," slaps on.
And recently I make a point of saying, "a person should be lots of things."
Buster and I went to the zoo this morning. He borderline-assaulted an alarmed peacock for a good 20 minutes, crashing through the bushes hollering "HI BO-GOCK! HIIIIIII!!!" That peacock's great-grandchildren will know my son from the tales of this day.
bogock listen and do exactly as i say
it's too late
he's spotted you
RUN TO HIGH GROUND
All this to say that I got a good long look at a Bogock today, and a good long listen to other zoo-goers as they discovered the cornered Bogock and described it out loud. One conversation in particular stood out.
Mom: Oh! Look at that peacock! Isn't he beautiful?
5 or 6-year-old Daughter: Oh, yes!
Mom: Look at his feathers, all long and purple and silky.
Daughter: He has lots of feathers.
Mom: That's what I said, look at all of those feathers on his tail.
Daughter: No, he has lots of different feathers - long purple tail feathers, little tiny blue and black neck feathers, regular brown and white spotted bird wing feathers, and those three things sticking up on his head. He has lots of different kinds of feathers.
Mom: Hunh. You're right. I guess I never noticed that.
A person should be lots of things.