My Bloody Valentine

June 6, 2011

We began here in February

(Please note – this post is, in part, about animal slaughter.)

Ellen rolled in after midnight from her Saturday night party. She checked her email before she went to bed.

“Oh, wow,” she called out to me from the office.

“What?” I asked, flipping through House Hunters.

“Google Calendar sent me an alert. It says: Kill Chickens.”

Sunday morning, she had to get up early with the kids to take them to an event with a friend. When she got back, I had set up the driveway with knives and buckets and coolers and stools. I was wearing my oldest jeans, the ones that really should be thrown away because you can see my butt through the threadbare fabric.

“I’m going to get the ice,” I told her. We were going to put the finished birds in ice water in the big cooler to hold as we worked.

“Get me a Coke while you’re at it,” she said.

“You’re hung over,” I said.

She nodded behind her sunglasses. This has been our deal since we became parents. She can go out and party as much as she wants, but she has to bounce out of bed ready to parent the next morning. I never go easier on her with the parenting when she’s hung over and I wasn’t going to go easy on her about the chickens, either.

We are not experts at killing chickens. We only killed three last year. The first one took us nearly an hour to get through the whole process. Sunday we spent five and a half hours on 13 chickens.

The actual killing is the easiest part. It’s harder to catch them, because they are small and fast and they know something is up. It’s harder to pluck them, because it’s detail work with small, downy, wet feathers. It’s harder to gut them, because you have to understand enough about their anatomy to know where to cut the tendons and how to grab the organs and not to nick the intestines.

At one point, I was holding a thrashing, decapitated chicken between my knees, trying to make sure the blood didn’t spatter too much. There was a bin full of warm, dead birds next to me and, in back of the garage, there was pen with agitated, living birds about to be killed. E dropped the bloody head into the bucket and gestured with the bloody knife. “Do you think anyone puts this in their internet dating profile?” she asked me. “Must want to kill chickens 18 years from now.”

Of course they don’t. That’s one of the many wonderful things about marriage. From wherever we were when we met almost 19 years ago, she and I grew into this place together. I don’t know anyone else who would spend a Sunday with me, elbows deep in dead animals. I could not have asked for it all those years ago because I didn’t know I wanted it. Being with her all this time has taught us, gradually, that what we want is to raise and kill a whole bunch of chickens.

Ellen and I did this for us. Last year it might have been about teaching Jacob a lesson about where meat comes from, but this year we raised all these babies, sold some and slaughtered others because we wanted to see if we could do it. We both had doubts that maybe we were too ambitious. We both looked at each other in the middle of the afternoon, exhausted and overwhelmed. “I think we just need to push through and do them all,” she said, just as I was thinking the same thing. I could not have loved her more.

This is the very core of our marriage. We want to do it ourselves. We believe in our ability to figure out any project. We give each other permission to make something that might not pass muster in a store. She says, “I’ll kill it if you dress it,” or I say, “I’ll dress it if you kill it,” and we’re off to the races. We know it’s not going to be perfect, but we want to figure it out.

We had no intention of teaching the kids anything Sunday afternoon. This was about us, seeing if we could see this project through. We had Jacob plucking for a few minutes and then we sent him back inside to do chores and play his PS3. Ruth watched a lot of TV so that E and I could concentrate on our project and each other.

It was so much more intense than I could have imagined. When it was over, the knees of my jeans were soaked in blood. I got so accustomed to eviscerating them that when I used my fingers to break the membranes that held the organs in the body, I could identify each one by touch: heart, gizzard, liver, intestines, lungs. An animal’s body doesn’t naturally want to be disassembled. It takes force and knowledge and bladework to take apart a body. It’s very different from cutting a grapefruit into supremes or dicing a mango. The body wants to hold together. That’s the point of the tendons and membranes and skin.

Ellen talked to each bird as she killed him. (They were all roosters.) Sometimes she was soothing. She swore at the one who bit her when we were catching him. I didn’t think she would do that, address each bird as an individual right up until the moment of his death. When I was setting up the knives and the buckets in the morning I didn’t know that the afternoon was going to be so much about the two of us, together. We killed and gutted 13 chickens. It was romantic.

My Tiger Mother, My Self

January 24, 2011

I have been following all this stuff about the superiority of Chinese mothers vaguely – reading with interest but not following every link. I didn’t want to write about it because I hadn’t read the actual book. And then yesterday afternoon the mother who dropped R off from the playdate handed me the actual book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua.

I read the whole thing in a couple of hours, which says more about the book than it does about my reading speed. I was shocked.

The whole time I have been following this conversation about Amy Chua, I have been thinking of myself as the mother. I’ve been comparing myself to her, or to the bits of things that get repeated in articles and blog posts about birthday cards and garbage and such. Reading the book, though, I realized that I am a little bit like the mother – but my real role in parallel to this book is the role of the daughter.

My mother is not Amy Chua. A lot of the most extreme stuff that has been circulated in the last couple of weeks is stuff my mother would never, ever do. But a lot of the stuff in the book – big and small – brushed at my memories of childhood. I only had sleepovers with my cousins. I scraped the piano with my teeth and made a mark. I was expected to be totally respectful to my parents and older relatives.

There was a time, eight or so years ago, when I would see little half-Asian kids and I would want to walk up to their parents and say, “I am what your child will grow into.” There just aren’t very many adults my age who are that kind of mixed race, but there are tons of little kids running around who are. I forgot about them for the last few years, I guess, or I have not been thinking about it so much. I forget that I am – and will always, for the rest of my life be – at the leading edge of a cultural shift around intermarriage and multicultural families.

The parallel with Amy Chua is problematic – she’s Chinese-American, raised in the Midwest with her immigrant parents but not an extended Chinese family; my mother is third-generation Japanese American raised in a Japanese-American community. So Amy Chua is both more and less Chinese-American than my mother is Japanese-American, and their parenting is both more and less Western (as Amy Chua is calling it). I am very, very glad for all the crazy ways my mother was not like Amy Chua, most of all including but not limited to the fact that she did not stand over me at every moment that I was practicing piano and let me quit at some point because I wasn’t good at it and I didn’t care about it.

The thing that Chua hints at but does not explore is the thing that I think is the most interesting about the way that I co-parent with Ellen. Ellen and I have a huge culture clash about parenting on a daily basis, and the way we negotiate that constantly is the most intellectually stimulating part of our marriage for me. This went down in our house, word for word, a couple of days ago:

Me (yelling at B): When I tell you to do something, I tell you ONE TIME. Then you do it. I do not have to ask you more than once. When an adult tells you to do something you do it immediately!

Me (to E): Did your parents EVER have to ask you more than once to do something?

E: Yeah, they did. All the time.

I was shocked. It never occurred to me that in any family, anywhere, ever a child could think that a parent’s request was ignorable, negotiable or even postponable. I had no idea. I’ve been thinking about it ever since that dialogue, trying to re-arrange my conception of what I think B and R’s obligation is to me as their mother. I don’t even know what the conclusion is, yet, but this kind of thing – the stuff that I take as set in stone that Ellen casually dismisses – these things are the things that make me grow the most as a person as I try to be a good mother. I get the sense that Amy Chua isn’t co-parenting like this. She’s not trying to compromise and learn because there are good things about every way to raise a child – and there are also supremely messed up ways, and they exist in tandem in each parent and in each cultural conception of parenting. If you say that you are going to do it all one way, you are missing out on new ways of shaping your children and shaping yourself. I love E so much, and I hate so much about the way she parents, and I love so much more about the way she parents even more. I would not want E to hand over everything about parenting to me – and if I handed over everything to her I — I don’t even know. It’s not possible.

“There is no true collaboration without disagreement,” one of my favorite work colleagues said to me once, more than a decade ago. I think about that at least once a day about work-work or about Jewish community work, but mostly about my marriage with E. The glory of living in the U.S. in the 21st century is that we have this incredible opportunity to collaborate with people from many cultures – and they are in our families.

(Just to restate for the record: my mother never, ever called me garbage. She never would.)

The Telecommuter

January 9, 2010

Virginia Heffernan is writing about working from home in the NYT Magazine this week. It think it is only slightly ironic that it came up in my RSS feed while I was working from home on a deadline. She’s saying that the thing that is going to make working work for women (she writes “women” but I think she really means “mothers”) is telecommuting.

She writes, “I submit, in all seriousness, that women have benefitted more (even) than men by telecommuting technology. Downloading school forms, pumping breast milk, tending to a sick kid, loading up the crockpot, straightening the kitchen — all this can be done with a BlackBerry in hand. None of this can be done — done well, anyway — at the office.” Mostly those are mother functions. She’s also writing about how you don’t have to commute, don’t have to dress up – both things I enjoyed before I had kids and loathed when we moved to the suburbs because of the kids.

She writes, “…working from home does mean avoiding the “second shift,” that ’90s horror, in which the workday was said to be followed by a day of housework and child care, somehow all in 24 hours.” I don’t think it means avoiding the second shift. I work just as many hours and just as hard from home as I ever did in an office. When I do run downstairs to throw something in the oven or move the laundry from the washer to the dryer because E ripped up her shoulder, it makes me even more on edge about my deadlines, not less. When she writes that thing about pumping breast milk with a BlackBerry in hand it just makes me even more tense. Working from home won’t erase the second shift. It will just make it harder to distinguish from the first shift and thus harder to ameliorate the image of the mother as the overly-busy multitasker.

Don’t get me wrong: I love working from home and, because I do, my home life is more relaxed. However, 80% of that is because I cut out 100 minutes of commuting a day, not because I can get so much more of my housework done at the same time. I can’t do housework and office work at the same time. If I did, the office work would suffer. I am committed to giving my office work my best – and not trying to cut corners at my job in order to mitigate the stress of being the multitasker mother.

Every once in a while a colleague who works in a distant unit of the company will call me to ask me about working from home. I them, “You have to have child care. There is no way you can have your kids at home, even a baby who sleeps most of the time, and get the work done.” This was something that E and I established early on, back when B as 3 and I started working from home occasionally. If you are going to work from home and be just as productive as you are in the office you can’t pile on too much more.

The other thing is that there are large swaths of professions that don’t make working from home an option. It’s not entirely a class thing, but it’s true that bus drivers and hotel maids can’t ever work from home – and journalists like me and Heffernan can. I remember a transit strike in NY several years ago and one of the really interesting conclusions people reached is that there are a lot of people, more than they thought, who can’t work from home. College professors and litigators have to show up, teachers and musicians and store managers. Working from home is fantastic, but I don’t think it’s applicable in enough cases – or really able to give you so much more freedom – to be a societal game-changer for large swaths of women.

The Rules, part 2

August 14, 2009

I remember ten years ago or more being in a committee meeting for the gay synagogue I belonged to at the time. We were talking about something – I don’t remember what, actually, but it was very contentious – and we voted and people kept talking about the issue, bringing it up again at the next meeting. One of the women got fed up and said, “We already decided this issue. We shouldn’t go back and debate it again. I’ve done that, been in communities where every decision is subject to renegotiation endlessly. There’s a reason we don’t do that anymore.” She was totally right and everyone in the room listened to her.

She was probably 20 years older than me. She had been, as Ellen and I said, “in the movement.” By that we meant that she had been active when “lesbian” and “feminist” were coming into their own together in the 70s. This woman had told me, with a laugh, that back then she went by the name Thunder. When she said that thing about endless renegotiation in the meeting, I knew that she was talking about that time. I’d bet that she got fed up with that way of functioning in a community around the time she went back to calling herself the name her parents gave her.

Today for the first time, I understood why, back when she was called Thunder, the women in her community felt the need to renegotiate everything endlessly. I got into this exchange with Shana about the arrangements we made with our wives about sleeping with other people. Ellen and I had a very specific one when we first met. Shana and her wife have one, too, even if they didn’t quite go through the negotiating process that Ellen and I did – but our mutual friend Elizabeth did. At the end of our conversation, I told Shana that I never called into use my agreement with Ellen. We agreed that we can’t really imagine wanting to sleep with other people, anyway.

Sexual fidelity is the kind of thing that used to be understood in marriage. There was only one way to handle it. There was no negotiation. Shana and I took for granted that it was ours to negotiate within the bounds of our individual marriages. When Thunder and her cohort were endlessly renegotiating everything to the point where community decisionmaking was constantly being undermined, they were reacting to the earlier state, when there was no negotiating, only one way to handle it. The one-way-only system didn’t work for them, so they thought the way to counteract it was to reject everything about it. Eventually Thunder and a bunch of other women figured out that constant renegotiation didn’t work so well, either and I could sit across from her at a committee meeting 20 years later and benefit from the wisdom she had gained the hard way.

I love my life. I love being in my life right now, where I can take for granted that the old rules don’t automatically apply to me – but I know most of them have some value. I know that marriage has to have some mutually-agreed-upon component of sexual fidelity. Shana and I are married to women and we call them “wives” – that’s how much we want to say “fuck you” to the old rules and how much credence we still give them.

“I want my America back,” someone said on the radio this afternoon, quoting a protester at one of the health care town hall meetings. You can take that a lot of ways, but I think the person means (even if they would not articulate it this way exactly) that they want to go back to a time when they knew what the rules were. They aren’t thinking that those rules didn’t work for everyone (leading to the adoption of names like Thunder), just that they find themselves confused by a world where everyone doesn’t have to follow the historical rules. They would feel more comfortable if it went back to a time when you could not renegotiate the rules.

That’s what the health care debate is about – a fundamental change in the way the rules have been understood for a long time. It’s as scary as women running corporations once seemed, as scary as gay people teaching elementary school, as scary as a black family living next door to a white family once seemed.

At every stage in my life I have been happy and excited to be me, right at this moment. When I came out in the early 90s, gay women were hip and exciting and Cindy Crawford was shaving k d lang on the cover of Vanity Fair. The census started letting you say that you were mixed race in 2000, the year I filled out a census form for myself for the first time. I’ve never had to fight the difficult fight. I’ve never been the first at anything but I’ve been early, in the first wave of people who are making a new identity. It’s always been the source of a lot of satisfaction in my life to be not the first courageous rule-breaker – but to surf in just after them, full of appreciation.

I feel happy because I know how to renegotiate the rules. I’ve been doing it my whole adult life. I also know that I can take control of my own re-negotiation and make it come out better for me.

Here’s what I don’t know how to do and I wish I could: I wish I could communicate to the people who say “I want my America back” that they can’t have it back – but they can have something that, after the renegotiation, is better than it was before. It’s not going to turn into the crazy anarchy-world Thunder eventually rejected where nothing is ever knowable. Thunder has already been there and we can benefit from her experience. I want to tell them that they can get in on the renegotiation, that renegotiation could make for stronger marriages, a more equitable economy, safer communities.

I have no idea how to say that, though, at least not in a way that doesn’t begin, “Back when the lesbian feminists were trying to overturn the patriarchy …” I know that’s not the way to reach them. I just don’t know what is.

Marry me for the dress

January 17, 2009

In my mission to get the economy back on track I ordered a dress on the internet. It came today and I tried it on for Ellen. It’s black fleece, with 3/4 sleeves and princess seams. It could ride my bike in it and get away with wearing it at shul. She said, “Well, Tim wouldn’t like where it hits you, but it’s all right.”

I puled the hem up about eight inches. “He’d want it here, wouldn’t he,” I said. She nodded.

It’s like Tim Gunn is the third person in our marriage.

To the tenth generation

November 18, 2008

It’s coming down that the strife that followed my grandfather’s death has blasted into the holidays. There are going to be nine of us at Thanksgiving instead of 19, Christmas is much reduced and New Year’s will be a shadow of its former self.

“Can you please explain why this is happening?” Ellen said months ago. I tried to start explaining about what happened when my uncle was born, the first boy after three girls and my grandfather –

and then I realized that would not make sense unless I explained that when my grandfather was a boy his parents sent him away to live with another family and –

and pretty soon I came to the conclusion that my life right now, my life as the lesbian dad who makes roasted tomatillo salsa on a Sunday afternoon – my life is being shaped by the strict primogeniture of 19th century Japan that made my second-son grandfather live with another family and want a son more than daughters.

So when people talk about African-Americans and slavery and they say that it’s been more than a hundred years since slavery was abolished so there’s no reason to talk about reparations – they are wrong. It’s still fresh, still relevant, still worthy of discussion at the very least. When The Torah talks about cursing to the third and the fourth generation, it’s pretty small potatoes.

I am thinking, all the time, about men and women and how we haven’t sorted things out. The wives get mad because the husbands say they are “babysitting” and “helping around the house.” The wives say that it’s not babysitting, it’s parenting and if you call it babysitting it makes it seem that it’s all the wives’ responsibility and what the husbands do is extra. But when the husbands try to make dinner for the kids – and it’s not exactly the way the wife would do it – she gets mad and tells him he doesn’t really know how to take care of the kids. He tries to assert himself and she pulls the rug out from under his feet.

I see it with Ellen’s straight friends all the time. I see it in my own marriage. I have to struggle every day not to tell Ellen that she’s doing it wrong when it really isn’t wrong, it’s just different. Then she turns around and tells me that I don’t really know how to relate to Ruth and I have to do it her way.

I want this to be all worked out. I don’t want to send Jacob and Ruth out into a world where nearly every couple I know can’t agree whose job it really is to take care of the children. I want men and women to get this thing worked out, this disequilibrium touched off by the Victorians sticking their angels in the house and the feminists pushing back out of the house. Now I know: it’s just too soon. These things – primogeniture, slavery, gender roles – their influence is longer than any one person can truly understand. Their influence pushes through generations and generations and generations longer than one lifetime. This isn’t going to be all worked out, none of it, not in my lifetime and not in theirs.

Something to say

June 17, 2008

When I saw the summary for Lisa Belkin’s piece in the NYT magazine, it sounded to me like she was going to totally lay out that other book I’m never going to write. I did, however, write a one-pager for it that I keep on the USB drive I carry around with me. Actually, looking at the file reveals that it’s longer than one page and that I never finished writing about it. Here’s the gist:

Women made the workplace better by bringing their concerns, experiences and needs into it – once it became passe to split job listings into “men” and “women.” If you said to a manager in 1970 that he had to offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave and guarantee that the employee would have a job to come back to, that 1970 manager would say that it was ridiculous and would make his business impossible to run. Today, employers take FMLA as a fact of life. It’s not just women who take FMLA. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single man at my company who hasn’t taken it after the birth or adoption of a child. They can do that because their wives are working as well – and because women in the workplace had something valuable to say about the way the workplace should function. That’s the first half of my one-pager.

Lisa Belkin is writing about couples who try very hard to split the work of parenting equally. They have different methods – keeping careful track of who does what, juggling their work schedules, stuff like that. I think that what they are doing is really interesting – and it’s moving in the direction of the second half of my one-pager. Belkin mentions that one couple is very cognizant of not making the mother be the parenting expert who dictates to the father how he should do everything. Another couple (or maybe the same couple?) says that it’s important for the mother not to be too picky about, say, what method the father uses when he does the laundry. Those are small nudges in the direction I’m going, but it’s not quite getting there.

Women made the workplace better because men, by force or by their own free will, ceded some of their power to women. Women didn’t just do the same jobs that men did at work – they demanded that things be done differently and the men came around to their point of view. And here’s the second part of my one pager, the place Lisa Belkin didn’t go: I think that women should cede some power to men in the home because I think that if men are truly given the power to parent – to mother – in their own way, they would have something valuable to say about mothering. It sounds a little ridiculous – but that 1970s manager thought FMLA was ridiculous, too. I don’t know what the men would have to teach women about being better mothers, but I feel that there is something there. My brother’s wife is pregnant and I am so, so looking forward to watching him parent. I want to watch them parent together. When G and his wife have a child, I want to watch them, too, because I think there’s something for me to learn from them about being mothers. If we let the men be mothers in their own way – just as women became managers in their own way over the last 40 years – I think it will make parenting better.

(I am fully aware of the other ridiculousness here, that I am the female dad who is neither mother nor father. I say that my children are well-parented without a male parent, so how can I think that men hold the key to the crucial missing piece of parenting? We’re going to leave that one unaddressed now because the whole thing is unaddressed. I’m not going to write the book.)

The parents in Lisa Belkin’s article never gave any detail about how they thought their parenting techniques were different from other couples. I paged through her blog briefly to see if she had any more detail on this point and I didn’t find any. I guess it doesn’t matter in the long run if she went there or not. I’m not going to write the book, so I might as well hope that she does.