Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Working Mother

Son of a "working mother." He looks so neglected.

The title of this post is the title of a magazine that started showing up in my mail a couple years ago. I assume it came free with something I bought for my kids, like the horrible unwelcome issues of American Baby that only recently stopped polluting my mailbox with their claims that "cesarean babies are happiest!" and other such rot.

Working Mother.  Let's parse that.  Most mothers in this country work. Most women in this country work.  Yet there we have this appellation, like a working mother is some special breed of woman.  She's really quite common.  She's often amazing, but still quite common.  This reminds me of Drew Gilpin Faust's assertion: "I'm not the woman president of Harvard. I'm the president of Harvard."  Not quite the same thing, but something about "working mother" has that "woman president" ring to it.

Feminist gripes with mainstream magazine titles aside, Working Mother is not bad.  And in fact, in my mildly affluent neighborhood, where we are one of the very few families who don't contribute to that affluence, working mothers like me are the minority.  So sometimes it's good to have an ally, even if it is just a bunch of shiny paper stapled together.

When this month's issue showed up, I was in a mood where the title and article headlines rubbed me the wrong way.  I flipped through the pages to find something to rant about.  I'd been aching to do a social rant on something, anything.  But this time I was disappointed.  Yet even though I could not find an article to work my critical pincers upon, Working Mom still gave me something to write about.

In article entitled "Teacher, please," Abigail Green outlines the phenomenon of Teacher Appreciation Week and the toll it takes on a working mom.  She tells the story of her five days of failing to live up to many of the appreciation week "requirements." On flower day she hits the grocery store before the florist is there (because she has to drop the kids early to make it to work on time) and in desperation she snatches dripping tulips from behind the counter.  Kudos to her.  I sent my son in with a plastic flower I pulled out of a storage bin, telling him it would be more special because it won't die.

Funny stories of frantic mornings are good memories, in a way, but it's the public shame that is hardest to live down.  Something Green doesn't mention, something more important and more sinister than hectic schedules, is how working moms are often judged by their SAHM neighbors who can't understand how YOU DIDN'T KNOW IT WAS CUPCAKE DAY?

How are we supposed to remember which day is cupcake day?  Or even have time to make cupcakes?  (And here I remember a rich woman -- the mother of a friend of mine -- counting the storebought baked goods at a PTA function years ago.  And as my own working mother set down the tray of rice krispies treats, the woman sighed, saying "Ohhh look how many people brought rice krispies treats...")

The local moms stand around outside waiting to pick up their broods at the walker door.  They're all in gym garb and North Face. One of them wears tall fashion boots with her gym garb.  They talk about developmental milestones.  Sometimes, about the careers they gave up.  One of them loudly proclaims that it is irresponsible and thoughtless for a mom to go to grad school. (Yes, that happened.)

In come the PTO emails that imply that if you don't have the time, then you have to have the money.  Donate soft drinks and plates. Send money for gift cards.  Etc.

I pick my son up at that door three days a week, but they look at me like they don't know who I am or what shrubbery I just crawled out of. I only have one mom acquaintance -- our boys became friends after hers punched mine.  Her husband is an art professor. The other women's husbands are in sales.

The shame doesn't just come in the active SAHM hating on working mom (and grad mom) variety, but also in the blindness of the school district to the make-up of its student body.  It's kind of a passive shaming. Because the school district has tons of money, it operates like all its students are Richie Rich. And all of Richie's moms stay home and have nothing better to do than read emails from the school and pore over the calendar and pack two weeks of lunches in advance and stick them in the freezer.

The school does not send announcements for events, because I should know, somehow, that tomorrow is pajama day.  My son has cried more than once over missing pajama day.

My son's class operates on a four day schedule.  Not five.  So library day (when he needs to bring books back) is always on a different day than it was last week.  He never brings his books back on time.  And when there is a holiday, it is a complete crapshoot what day the next week will start on.  What the hell is this?  Yeah, high school students have different periods and sometimes rotating schedules, but they are responsible for that.  A second grader (or his mom) should not have to go online and check the calendar every single night to find out what new and different surprise is in store for him the next day at school.

Once I forgot to pay the lunch bill (the kids can run up to $10 in debt on their lunch cards, in case of forgotten lunches).  I owed $4.40.  The school sent me a stern note saying how "All of our parents make sure to pay their lunch balance on time." First of all, that's a bit stern for a balance of less than $5, when district policy allows him up to $10 before they give him a stale cheese sandwich and toss him out on his ear.  Secondly, and more important than my irritation at receiving debt collection-style notes from an elementary school -- shouldn't a school think to offer free or reduced lunches to a family who has been getting behind on their lunch payments?  I know you have to qualify for that (and we wouldn't qualify), but they don't know our situation.  For all they know I don't have $4.40 to spare.  Here's what they should send: a letter that asks for the balance to be settled and comes with a form and a nice handwritten note saying "We noticed Mikey hasn't had lunch money this week.  Do you want to apply for free lunch and see if you qualify?"  Aren't schools supposed to be on the front line of helping kids in poverty?  Again that's not us, I paid the $4.40.  But their approach seems completely blind to any other kind of student demographic than the ones whose moms they see hovering around the classrooms as "room parents" every day.

I complain about this all the time (mostly to myself, in the kitchen, while trying to figure out what all the uninformative papers in my son's backpack mean), and it was good to see similar angst (and not a shred of guilt!) in Green's article.

Did I mention they never send home notes? Unless you owe money. Then they want to break your working mom thumbs.

Now before the stay at home moms get mad at me, I know there are arguments on both sides.  I know that SAHMs get unfairly judged by "career women" just as often as SAHMs dish out criticism of working moms. But in the realm of kids-at-school, and getting-shit-done-for-the-PTO sorts of stuff, SAHMs are in charge.  No one is telling them that staying home is making them less involved in their kids' education or a less valuable member of the community.   Working mothers in conservative, affluent areas like mine not only deal with the passive shaming of a system that doesn't recognize their family or lifestyle as a component of the neighborhood, but their kids miss out because of that system too.  Information on the little things (pajama day, art fair, etc) is hard to get, and we're not on the "phone tree." And because we can't make social bonds with the North Facers at the walker door, they don't let their kids bond with ours.

I don't know who needs to step up here.  Why aren't the schools smart enough to realize that not all parents can be involved with school activities EVERY DAY?  Why can't parents in one-earner families realize that they are actually NOT the norm, and that we working moms appreciate what they do at the school, but we just absolutely can't contribute the same way?  Do the working moms need to start a club to call attention to ourselves?  To ask SAHMs and schools to stop making us feel like terrible parents? Or most importantly, to allow for kids of working moms to be involved in all of the activities they never find out about because NO ONE TOLD THEIR PARENTS.

A working mom club... Ain't nobody got time for that!

He'll make his own pajama day.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Translating Flute

I am learning to play the flute.

Why the hell would a 32-year-old woman try to learn to play a new instrument? Or any instrument at all for that matter?  (These are the things my fellow soccer moms wonder.)  Because this is the kind of shit I do.  That and ballet classes, and self-portraits, and grad school, and translating Old English poetry, and a lot of other things mothers don't typically even think about, or suspect that their neighbors are up to.  Take that suburbia.

I played saxophone and french horn in school, and I got especially good at the sax.  I was emulating Lisa Simpson then.  Outcast nerd with saxophone who hates the school band music (the vegetarianism waited until I grew up). But instead of jazz like Lisa I wanted to play rock sax.  I'd listen to the radio and play the solos by ear.  And in the early nineties, there were plenty of sax solos wafting o'er the airwaves.  Like a river flowin' into the ocean...

Now my inspiration and instrumental role model is Ian Anderson.  (Who else? Well, Peter Gabriel plays the flute, but it's not quite the same.) I've been into Jethro Tull for about ten years, and all through my 20s I dreamed of being in a rock band.  I always pictured myself playing rock flute in that band, and singing in a folksy voice.  Always doing a Tull cover or two.

So a few years ago I got my chance to play in a cover band, and I became the lead singer.  And I sang bluesy, not folksy.  And the Tull in our catalog was null.  I was instrumental to the band line-up, yet even with all my multi-talented influences I remained ironically non-instrumental.  I honed my vocal craft for four years, but always felt terribly lacking.  I didn't have anything to hold.  Sometimes I had hand percussion.  Other times, just idle hands. I'd pick up a tambourine and shake it lightly enough that it was inaudible, just to have something to do.  Most of the time I just danced wildly.  The few times I offered my saxophone abilities during practice discussions, the band was skeptical. 

That venture has ended, so as a singer I've been longing to perform in some way or another. I loved the rush of being up front, the euphoria of getting lost in my own sound-making.  But I don't have a band now, and no one is impressed by just singing. Everyone has a voice. You have to be able to do something.  ENTER: FLUTE!

Despite the flute having the same fingering as the sax, and despite my early, demonstrated ability to merrily meld with woodwinds (maybe "graft" would be a more woody metaphor...but the flute is silver anyway), many told me "You can't do it!"  No one said "You're too old to learn new music stuffs," but it may have been implied.  They did say, most pointedly, that I wouldn't be able to muster the wind for a flute.  Wait! -- I belted out "White Rabbit" and "Sweet Child of Mine" at earbone-jarring volumes, always garnering that cute comment from one or two in the audience, "Such a big voice for such a little girl!" I think I can manage to blow some good air into this thing with the holes on it.

So I've been working on it for about a month and a half.  My basic music reading came back at two weeks.  My sight reading came back at four. The fingering came back at four weeks too.  Then the simple Yiddish song "Tumbalalaika" committed itself to my memory, allowing me to practice embellishment without slowing down to fiddle with my tangled, confused digits.

I still can't keep time when I learn a new song.  That will come, I'm sure.  I still forget notes when there are flats and sharps not in the key signature. I think the memorization of tunes will come better once I'm not using so much brain power to get my fingers over the right and proper holes and to tell B from D on the staff, and so much muscle power to keep the flute from flying out of my grasp whenever I play C sharp. (You have to let go of all but one pinky key, and that key depresses forward. TweeeeeetfllubbupwhoAAH!)

Let it float...
Maybe the problem there is that I think of my flute as something I need to grasp? It's like learning to ride a dirt bike.  You grip too hard over the jumps and get sore arms because you're so afraid of falling off.  I'm afraid of falling off the flute, and my hands start to cramp from the effort of keeping it close. What should I do with it?  Let it sort of float there? Someday...

Too much grasping.
So after six or seven weeks of practice (with 1/2 hr lessons most of those weeks, with a gal who is happy I want to learn rock flute), putting a few folks songs in the vault, and reading Amazon reviews that said "My fifteen-year-old daughter sight read it and played it right off the bat!" I bought my first Jethro Tull flute solo book.  It will be here Monday.  I can't wait. 

In fact, I couldn't wait so much that I looked up Bourée and started playing it. It actually is easy to pick up right away!  And I'm not even fifteen!  All the trick is in the timing and the embellishments.  There are still some symbols I have to figure out, but I can feel where the trills should be, and I know the movement of the song even if I don't properly interpret all the lines and dots.  I have the notes, I have my Tull records, I have my woodwinded mind -- I think I am set.

The title for this post came from overly philosophical thoughts I began to have while playing a Tull song for the first time.  I couldn't believe what I was hearing.  There's a line in The Sun Also Rises about an American woman speaking French and being surprised at it coming out French.  And then talking too much just to hear herself magically talk French.  That's what it felt like. 

Then tonight I thought about having to relearn to read music, and then to add in all the other info on the page besides just the notes (notes on notes, paratexts...), then interpret it for myself to make it sound agreeable, and like actual music. I thought about the acts of reading, writing, and translation.  I think my knack for Old English translation, silly as this may sound, has been helped along by my learning to play the flute. I began the two endeavors together this semester -- translating OE, "translating" flute -- and they are remarkably complementary.

I was Bourée-ing after I put the kids to bed tonight.  It was great to hear my 8-year-old son call down to me, "Hey, I can hear the song now! Doo doo DEE, doo dee DOO, doo dee DOO, doo doo DEE..."

(And then after a few clinkers he called down "Mama, would it help if you just put on the record?")

Friday, April 12, 2013

Almost there.

I've been blogging here for five years now, and in many ways the blog has done what I wanted it to do.  It's kept me aware of how often (or seldom) I write, it's given me an audience to keep me honest, give me shit, and give me hope, and it's provided a record of my changing style and interests.  But probably most importantly, as the title suggests, this blog has followed me through my career as a student, from "non-traditional" college junior to graduating Master of Arts.  That's me.  I'm a master now.  A black belt in literature.

The next illogical step in this eternal forward march of studentry is to take a PhD.  Yes, I'm going to do it.  I only spent the first year and a half of this blog talking about how I would do it.  And now five years later, I will.

I'm staying at NIU and entering the doctoral program this fall, with full support.  That is, they are paying my tuition and I am getting paid (better than I was paid as a masters student) to teach.  Had to throw that in there in case anyone reads this and wants to tell me I'm going in debt.  Yes I will continue to be quite poor!  But I won't be paying anything for school, just like I didn't pay anything for my MA.  They'll be paying ME for school. 

The school has very little money for any new appointments in 2013-14, after hiring a huge cohort last year.  But they found some money for me.  The graduate director made sure they found some for me.  And that was awesome.  Since he didn't know if they'd have enough money in the English department, he wrote a letter for me to get a "recruitment" scholarship from the Graduate School.  Which is funny because it's more like a "Wait, wait! Please don't go somewhere else!" scholarship.  I like it.  But after all that (I took the money of course) they also found me an assistantship appointment and the bucks for that too.  Maybe I could go somewhere else.  But it is sweet to be where you are appreciated.

The letter that informed me of my scholarship award also informed me of how I should feel about it. "I encourage you to think of the waiver as a demonstration of the Graduate School's faith in your ability [...] and an institutional commitment to your academic success."  Thanks, Dean.  I'll think exactly that.

Know what I told them in my statement of purpose?  That I'm going to study the history of ideas.  And that I'm going to study Old English.  And that somehow that will all work out.  I put it more eloquently of course, and they did not seem to mind my unapologetic goal of becoming a generalist.  In fact, I think it might even help in a market where every new grad has been told Specialize! Specialize like hell!  As Dr. David Gorman tells me, "Be someone who knows something."  Spending these years on intellectual history will bring me knowledge of many somethings.  And being a fool for Old English will give me a very enjoyable pastime that I may one day be able to pretend is my "specialization."

WAIT! OH SHIT!  I just read an article in The Economist telling me I'd better not do a PhD because I'll only make 3% more than my MA'd peers.  The correspondent made an attempt to separate STEM, professional, and humanities PhDs, but not a very good one.  She also noted that the award for the most unfinished dissertations goes to humanities students.  It's probably because we get paid the least as assistants, and at some point we can't take it anymore and our kids get hungry. (TAs in other fields at my school get paid more than me to do recitations, grade, or sit as lab attendants.  While we, the few, the proud, the English, design and teach all our own classes by our own damn selves.)  Material pains aside, as many of the (non-sexist, very respectful) commenters argue, many of us who pursue a PhD, especially in the humanities, are not thinking of that 3% or however much it should be (and how much would be enough for someone who already thinks a PhD is a waste of time?). 

So this is NOT where I say the blog has run its course!  I'm still a student.  For at least four more years, I'd bet. And now that I'm a 32 year old PhD student, I'm no longer non-traditional.

I have in the works three very long blog posts on actual topics, that is, they're not autobiographical indulgence as I like to label it.  I'm writing about sexism, because it's everywhere.  I'm writing about it twice (1. anti-feminist tu quoque, and similar problems in arguments by angry commenters, and 2. the sinister side of benevolent sexism).  And the third work in progress is about my grandmother, who died February 27.

Also in the works is a proposal (idea finalized today!) for a fellowship to do research in the NIU Library's Special Collections.  It has to do with H.P. Lovecraft but I won't tell you what it is until I submit the proposal. We've got the second largest collection of his papers outside of Providence.

I'm due for a writing revolution, revamp, or rejuvenation.  Nothing well written has come out of me in a long time.  That's the thing I miss the most about this blog -- the push of having a place to publicly publish (soooo much alliteration!  Thanks Wulfstan...) put me at the top of my game sometimes. Lately I've fallen off, and so have my words.  I think I'm in a transitional stage.  I'm learning a lot, so lately when I write I know what I'm talking about.  I think I need to rise to the next level of incompetence for my writing urge to kick back in. Maybe when we use writing to understand things we can't figure out otherwise, that's when it's at its best.