Sunday, August 30, 2009

Why I Will Let Sophia Watch ABDC*

*once I let her watch television

ABDC, for those of you who don’t know, is not part of the educatainment empire. It’s not a beginning phonics program. It does not comprise 30 minutes of Sprout's 24 hour programming for babies and preschoolers.

It’s on MTV.

Yes, you heard me right. Once a large chunk of her neural pruning has taken place and I feel fairly confident that the strobe-like editing won’t rewire her brain to attend to a stimulus for no longer than 1/10 of a second …a process, I am convinced, is the root of all ADHD. I…will…let…Sophia…watch…America’s Best Dance Crew.

In a miasma of reality TV shows in which participants are selected on the basis of their poor mental health and then exploited for profit, ABDC’s greatest fault is that it errs on the side of sentimentality. Dance crews, often from underprivileged backgrounds, battle other dance crews for the chance to be named Amercia’s Best Dance Crew and win $100,000. Much like other talent shows of its kind, there is an elaborate elimination process, much of which occurs off screen. But unlike its popular predecessor, American Idol, contestants are not humiliated for sport or amusement. Instead, its competitors are celebrated. The time between dance segments is devoted to spotlighting how crew members have transcended difficulties in their life, recounting how the crew came together, and explaining where they come from and what they represent.

On a show, where there is certainly a great deal of pressure and probably some degree of arguing—conflict never makes its way onto the screen. Instead, collaboration and teamwork is emphasized. You see the participants brainstorming and problem solving together. And then you watch them realize a collective vision as they dance in the weekly competition.

Not only do the crews dance—they choreograph their work. Given certain parameters, they come up with a concept and generate a 45-second segment. They are judged as much on their creativity as they are on their technical skill. The judges provide thoughtful, critical feedback, in a way that is meant to help the crew’s grow and improve. Similarly, the audience is respectful, cheering for all the competitors.

And when a crew is eliminated, they conduct themselves with dignity, grace, and great sportsmanship, expressing gratitude for the opportunity to be on the show, reflecting on how far they came, and commending their competitors on their success.

The show has featured crews of different sex, race, ethnicity gender identification and body-type. There have been a variety of styles of dance included: latin, roller skating, b-boying, stepping, country/western, even clogging—each treated with equal respect. And whereas the comments of the judges aren’t always politically correct, you watch them struggle with and become aware of their biases.

ABDC is about more than dance. It is about dedication to a dream and realizing that dream. It’s about being open to feedback. It’s about working effectively with others. It’s about acceptance. It’s about pride. It’s about “bringing it hard” every time. It is a model of behavior I would like Sophia to aspire to. Oh yeah, and its fun.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sophie Do It

Lightening tore fresh holes in the sky. The thunder was so loud it shook the foundation of our house. I woke suddenly and bolted upright, heart pounding. Meanwhile, Sophia, who rouses whenever I step on a creaky floorboard, slept unperturbed in her crib next door.

I didn’t want to be. I knew it was irrational. But I was terrified.

I debated running downstairs to Kevin, who was sleeping (or not) in his insomnia-resistant cave, for reassurance. And then I got to thinking about dependent and independent states, which turned my thoughts to Sophia.

In the last few weeks, Sophia has transitioned from a rather docile, mostly obedient, and largely dependent creature to a little girl with a will of her own and a distinct lack of coordination to execute that will.

Example #1: We are in a buffet-style salad restaurant in Florida with my sister, her husband, and my nephew. In an effort to be more flexible parenting-wise, I squirt out a white chemical concoction from a shiny aluminum machine which claims the stuff is frozen yogurt. I set it down in front of Sophia, who eyes it suspiciously, but after one orgasmic mouthful is hooked. She encircles the bowl with her right hand, and digs her spoon into the food-like substance with her left. The bowl wobbles precariously on the table, threatening to spill down her bib-less body. “Here, let me,” I offer helpfully, stabilizing the bowl. “NO! SOPHIE DO! SOPHIE DO!” she shouts, pushing my hand away with surprising force. “I’m just trying to help you,” I insist, now just letting my hand hover over the bowl. Even this is too invasive for her. She slaps my hand away, “SOPHIE DO IT!” With a look of great concentration, she successfully scoops out a spoonful and awkwardly twists her wrist 180 degrees to aim it towards her mouth. The melting, viscous yogurts slides and hangs off of the edge of the spoon. I am waiting, albeit at a safe distance, napkin in hand as she drags the spoon into her mouth, leaving a creamy trail across her cheek. I resist the impulse to wipe it clean.

Example #2: Sophia has never liked costume changes, but suddenly it’s an all out battle to get her out of her play clothes and into her pj’s. As I try to pull on the bottoms, she protests loudly and rolls around on the bed, eluding me. I grab a leg, try to insert it into the pants and she cries out “SOPHIE DO! SOPHIE DO!” reaching for them. Ripping the pants out of my hands, she attempts to put them on upside-down. I resist the impulse to reorient the pants as she tries repeatedly to aim her foot into a small hole. I try talking her through turning the pants around, and she listens. With one leg finally in, she claims success, abandons the project, and resumes rolling. Bracing for a fight, I guide her other leg into the pants and pull them up. Furious with my audacity to improve upon her work, Sophia endeavors to rip the pants off, pulling them back down over her diaper. There is a struggle. The pants are up. I am victorious. Sophia is pissed.

It is the hardest thing to stand back and let Sophia do for herself. I am not sure if it is because I am not yet ready to let go of her earlier phase of absolute dependence. Or if I'm the one who can’t tolerate her frustration at not experiencing immediate success. Or if I simply just want things to move along faster. It’s probably some combination of the three. I know she needs to do it and that I have to take a step back. It is the hovering that conveys a lack of capability. That breeds helplessness and fear. And so, I’m trying—but, still, it’s difficult to resist the impulse to take over.

Outside, the storm continued to punish the earth. Wide awake, I picked up an article by Michael Pollan about the pending extinction of cooking . A line from the page jumped out at me. Pollan derived this lesson from Julia Child, who, he explained, “took the fear out of cooking” for many women: “The only way you learn to flip things is just to flip them!” So simple. So true.

I didn’t go downstairs to Kevin. Sophia eventually did wake, cried out, and almost immediately went back to sleep. I didn’t go to her. I didn’t have to. She soothed herself. The storm subsided, and I, too, soothed myself and went back to sleep.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

In Training

Neither of my parents followed sports, nor were they particularly athletic themselves. My father had played handball as a boy in the upper west side projects; my mother had a passion for Jackie Sorensen aerobics, which she did with other leotard-clad middle-aged women in a stinky Catholic school gym on Tuesday and Thursday nights. And both of them had a mean side-stroke, which they could do for hours on end along the perimeter of our town’s man-made lake. But, in my household, intellect, art and culture were valued over blood, sweat and tears. My mother took me to piano and ballet lessons. My father took me to jazz clubs and foreign films. As a family we went to galleries, museums, and festivals.

Not surprisingly, I grew up a wimp. A cultured wimp, but a wimp just the same. While playing bombardment, I hid behind every other player until I was the only one left, a slight, but easy target for the sadistic, ball wielding maniacs on the opposing team. In the outfield, I linked dandelions to form golden chains, which I used to adorn myself. In gym, I was picked last (or nearly last) for every team…from elementary school straight up through high school. And when, in a gesture of cruel generosity, my friend Stephan, who was athletic, picked me to be on his all-star volleyball team senior year, I single-handedly destroyed the team’s hope of being number one. I can still hear Stephan yelling at me, frustrated as I, once again, dropped the ball, “Use two hands, Melissa. TWO HANDS.”

I began running in spite of physical education. In spite of my parents. I began running by accident.

It was my 16th summer. My parents were fighting. Again. I can’t remember the specifics. (Was it over how much my mother had paid for a grapefruit? Whether or not she had placed a fork next to my father’s plate?) Somehow, I was brought in. (Was I trying to restore peace? Was it me who set the table?) I hit a breaking point and sprinted from the house. I ran without destination. My legs carried me across the street and into the woods. I ran until my lungs burned. I probably went a mile…or less…but it was enough to generate a sense of freedom. Of release. Of escape.

After that one night, I was hooked. I kept on running. After my freshman year of college, I ran through my first real break up, exhaling anger, pounding out despair. From there, I ran through dysfunctional relationships, job stress, writing a dissertation. I ran through wedding planning, my isolation in Asheville, and one very bitchy boss. I ran away from stress and anxiety…and ultimately towards health and strength.

And now that I have a daughter of my own, I want to be a model of this strength. I want her to experience the self-confidence that comes with athleticism. I want her to be proud of her body and what it can do.

There is a fine line between encouraging your children to pursue the options open to them and living out your own dreams through them. The latter requires a lot of money tossed into the therapy jar. I don’t want push Sophia into running…or any other sport, but I want her to know that she can. That it doesn’t have to be brains or brawn, art or athletics. I’m still trying to figure out how that works.

Yesterday, when I woke at 6:00, it was pouring rain. I snuck up to the attic to knock out 12 miles on the treadmill before Sophie woke up. She roused at about 7:30, and Kevin took her up to see me. Sophia, who had never witnessed me run on the treadmill before, stared, wide-eyed and intrigued. “Mommy’s running,” Kevin explained. I finished up, showered, and joined them in the kitchen. “Upstairs.” Sophia told me. I followed her first to the second floor, and then up to the attic. The room was still cool from the air-conditioning I had cranked during my run. She made a gleeful beeline for my treadmill, and climbed aboard. Hopping from one foot to another on its stationary belt she said proudly, “Sophie running!”

Off and running, indeed.