The Bird and The Conclusion: Finishing my Daughter’s Story

As is often my want on this blog, I will tell a story about parenting. My daughter is six years old and she’s pretty goofy—which is fine by me. But there is something she seems to take quite seriously: telling the Truth—with a capital “T”.

Last weekend, my daughter and I were walking home from a trip to the local park and she noticed a robin hopping around the soccer field. I identified the bird, and she started telling a story. The story began in this way:

“One time, when I was at Nana’s (her maternal grandmother), mommy opened up the door and a bird flew in. ‘Cause there’s a nest there.”

“And…” I said, in wanting of the rest of the story.

(No response)

“So, who caught it?” I asked.

“I don’t remember” she says as she follows the white grass along the soccer border.

“Well, make it up,” I added emphatically.

“But, I don’t remember!”

“Well, you have to have a conclusion. You can’t leave me guessing. You have to leave the story with the reader.”

“Okay. Mommy caught it! And Nana! And Booboo (her maternal grandfather)! And Laura (her aunt)! But that’s not what really happened,” she makes sure to add.

“Yeah, but it’s a way better story. And it has an ending.”

I was struck by this realization: not what we are all telling stories (I mention that a lot on this blog!), but that I want her to tell me a good story. And I want her to be able to tell a good story. In less colloquial terms: I want her to be an orator, an interesting person, someone who understands the essence of an action and its affect; and that’s a story.

jumpstagramThat is how we sell ourselves. That is how we wake up in the morning. That is what gets us to bed at night. What story are we telling? How are we telling it? Can we sleep because of it? Or does it keep us awake all night? Is it the one where the guy gets the girl? Is it the one where they are happy? or sad? Is it the one where the girl becomes famous? the guy fights crime? Which one? How are you justifying your life? your decisions? your thoughts?

No matter what it all begins with a single step. And then another. And then another. And then you look back, often way in the distance, and if you are lucky and someone is listening to you, then you have the privilege of saying: “One time, way back there, this happened…”

Thanks everyone for being that person listening.


Reading is Fun(Duh)Mental: natürlich!

I’m doing my darnedest not to make this a blog about being a parent, but sometimes, you gotta think out loud…

She doesn’t like kindergarten. At six years old, I don’t blame her. I did not like school until I was 25. (And now I teach at one! Ha!) It turns out that her reading skills are below average—again, it’s not necessarily easy to handle when you have a collected eight bookshelves in your home and a M.A. in Literature. And her friends are reading already, so they are moving ahead of her and receive special access to the “purple” folder—a folder that apparently contains special words and privileges for the more advanced readers. So, tonight we slowly read Skip Along—a book my mom learned to read with when she was young. It’s good—you know, “Go, Alice, go” type of stuff. I like it. And then before bed, and the nightly reading, I asked her to grab a book of my shelf and bring it to me.

Blenheim PalaceDiary: A Novel, by Chuck Palahniuk. Not a good start, but she grabbed it hesitantly. In other words, while glancing at me for approval/permission. She brought it over and we skimmed through the many pages. She put it back on the shelf—in it’s alphabetic spot, as I requested. Then she grabbed Haunted, by the same author. “Sheesh,” I thought, “pick Orwell or something.” Nope. Next she grabbed Great Shark Hunt, by Hunter S. Thompson. Possibly cause it’s hardcover and ginormous. Possibly due to her disdain for Richard Nixon. I don’t know. Then, Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri. “One of my favorites,” I remarked. She is amazed when I told her I read the whole thing. Each time I flipped through the pages, making sure to note to her the 380, 400, or 282 page length of each book. Then she grabbed part four of Joseph Frank’s biography of Dostoevsky—hefty reading. We noted the 600 pages, and I read to her about Fyodor’s trip to Baden-Baden with his then wife.

I closed the book and she remarked, “That must be like 500 words!” I smiled and replied, “Well, there about 500 words on these two pages. And there are 600 pages.” She looked at me as though an abacus made exclusively of super-bouncy balls was bouncing back and forth, back and forth in her head. I told her that each author is explaining an idea. That they needed to communicate something to everyone and anyone that they could. And because we can all read, we can understand that idea. Then I told her that she will learn to read. All of us did. I did. Mommy did. Even Grandma Jo did. And she will too, someday. Then I told her she may even write a book this big—still holding Franks’ 600-page biography. Her eyes widened and she remarked, “Maybe it will be like 100 pages! Then the book would be this big!” She motioned with her arms outstretched as far as she could.

German American InstituteI know everything will be fine. At least it is an empathetic struggle. You see, I’m learning (re-learning) German right now. And it’s often a struggle. Whenever my daughter trips on a word while reading Skip Along, I think of that word’s German equivalent. Most of the time I cannot recall it. Sometimes, I want to say out loud, “Gehen, Alice, gehen!” And I know that my problem with learning German is practice. Just like her issue with reading. It shouldn’t be thought of as a struggle, or a standard measurement to which she/I needs to be assessed, or some cool folder that makes us feel worse about our reading. It’s practice. Practice, along with the basic importance of why we read: Verbindung.

A Story

“Astonishment gives pleasure; evidence of this is the fact that everyone exaggerates when passing on news, on the assumption that they are giving pleasure”

“If impossibilities have been included in a poem, that is an error; but it is correct if it attains the end of the art itself…”
Aristotle, from Poetics

OJP StreetLast weekend my six-year old daughter told me a story about being at her mommy’s house. We were decorating pink frosted Valentine’s Day cupcakes with sprinkles, and she remembered a time her mother and her made cupcakes. Her story was simple. It began: “At my mommy’s house we made cupcakes for my birthday. Then we brought them to Nana’s (her grandma’s house), and I got to eat two whole cupcakes!” I replied, “What a lovely story.” To which she turned her head with a furrowed brow and a grimace, remarking, “It’s not a story, daddy!” I said, “Well, of course it is. Someone did something; something happened to someone. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. It wasn’t a very good story—next time include a dragon—but it was a story.” Before you rage against my parenting skills, I’d like you to know I tell this to everyone; I even say this when relating my own stories (“I should throw a dragon in there next time”).

So, her grimace now became frustrated, “But it really did happen, daddy!” Now this is where I shine. I said, “Well, stories can be true and not true. You are still telling me a story when you tell me about something that happened to you. Even if it’s just going upstairs to use the bathroom. It’s still a story. It’s just better when there’s a dragon. More dramatic.” Yes, this is how I talk to my six-year old. I tend not to belittle her or make that awful “child speak” that people often do. I use big words. And I tend to explain everything at eye level. She’s an individual to me, and I am so happy that she finally has an opinion.

OJP CameraAs I was explaining to my gf the other night: many people tend to think children are not very smart, or rather, observant (I am thankful if you, dear reader, are not one of these people; but you should read on anyway). I tend to think they are absolute geniuses. Let me explain with an example. Some people think children don’t consider race, class, or gender when watching Disney films, or, say, playing with toys. And, therefore, do not consider those issues on our privileged, adult or mature level. But I think they are very wise; wiser than us.

You see, they have nothing to do. No bills to pay. No cars to fill with gas. No groceries to accumulate. No job. They don’t worry about sex, or looking good, or being confident around a pretty boy or girl. They don’t worry about shaving, or where food comes from, or what’s in their bank account, or taxes. All they do is watch you. They are learning how to be a person. All day, every day. And playing. 90% of their waking time is figuring out how to best utilize their play time, i.e. who can play with me, when can they play, how long, and what game. They make friends by proximity, not a shared morality, interests, or hobbies. So, that’s it: Play and Mimic us. Children have a sincerely simple and myopic view of life: it is black or white. There is always a rule present: either you follow it or you don’t. That’s it. And following that rule depends solely upon what brand of attention the child wants, and from whom they want it.

OJP Battle CreekSo, to my point. It is clear that my daughter firmly holds this logic: A story is a lie, and lying is bad (due to parental enforced consequences). Therefore, I should not lie; I should not tell stories. Here’s the rub: I don’t see it that way. I think we all tell stories. We are a social, story telling species. When I ask you, “How are you doing?” Then you tell me a story. Same with, “How was your day?” I get a story (hopefully a good one). Now, there is no possibility that you can tell me an accurate version of a story. It is always colored. Your perspective colors it with a Crayola of tones, adverbs, and adjectives like grey sadness (like Eeyore) or pink worry (like Piglet)—for just a few examples. And you decide, every time, how to tell your story. You decide where to begin, where to end, and what details to include. Nietzsche states that we actively forget. If not, we would never move! Every color or smell would provoke a memory, which in turn would provoke another memory, which would provoke another, and another. We would never move; or, even worse, never experience our amazing life; and in doing so never create new memories. So, we forget. Then, we embellish; we tell stories.

I broke my daughter’s chain of logic. She still looks at me with a weird, cock-eyed grimace when I tell her I like her story. You see, I want her to know what pleasure can be derived from hearing and telling a story, whether it is fact or fiction. That her life is not simply Black or White, Truth or Lie, Story or Reality. I don’t want her to tell me everything, but I want her to feel free to do so. In fact, I want her to tell me stories twice. Because each time, even if it is the exact same story, I’m a different person than I was two or thirty minutes ago. And I hear a uniqueness every time she tells it. Same with you. You haven’t told everything. You can’t. But what you piece together is You. So, the next time someone asks you about your day, remember that you’re telling them a story. So, color it well…