Theatre of the Absurd

She expected me to be devastated.

“Ms. Johnson, come over here and look at this.”

“What?”

“Come over here and take a look at my screen; at Sadie’s growth chart.”

I come over in time to see her hitting zoom in 25 times. I can see the almost flat line barreling down the one yard highway between my chair on the wall and her laptop hanging on the washbasin counter.

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“Ok. Tell me what you’d like me to observe.”

It was like she was doing a see think wonder with a growth chart I’ve been scrutinizing at the will of doctors since June 5, 2007 (Sadie’s birth).

“The line is flat. We are at the standard deviation of 3 since you can’t be less than zero. There are no numbers less than zero on growth charts.”

“Ok.”

I am nodding my head with full knowledge that there are no zeros, but apparently, there are people who are “abnormal” or who “deviate” from the norms these charts work to maintain.

“Tell me what you want me to infer from this chart and these numbers.”

It’s like she’s afraid to say what’s on her mind and what she’s thinking, but has a plan for how this visit should go, for the observations I should make and the conclusions I should draw. I am playing dumb because my kid has always been outside the norm. I have never thought she would meet preconceived expectations. I work everyday to see her with an open heart and mind because she deserves to NOT always have the norm foisted upon her by the world that will inevitably foist it, even if it does in the name of kindness and care.

“She has been taking growth hormone for a year and patients with pseudohypo don’t usually respond to it.”

I bite my tongue and work to shrink in, but have a hard time not saying it, so it spills out.

“Based on the chart it does look like she’s losing weight, so I would gather that the response she is having is weight related and based on early results in clinical trials run by Dr. Emily Germaine Lee at Kennedy Krieger center in Baltimore, PHP1a patients lose weight on growth hormone. I’d also imagine that her internal organs might be growing. That seems important”

“But we can’t measure that,” she blasts. “We can only measure height and visible bone growth.”

“Ok. Are you telling me you want her to stop taking growth hormone?”

“No. I’m trying to set expectations.”

“Mine? Hers? Yours? About?”

All this time Sadie’s eyes are pingponging between my head and the endocrinologist’s. Tears are welling in my eyes. Sadie comes over to place her hand on my knee.

“My daughter is small. She has always been small. Are you trying to tell me she will always be small? I am ok with that. I was ok with that before we started taking growth hormone.”

It was why I, for a long time didn’t want her to take growth hormone. I didn’t want her to ever think that we needed her to grow to achieve some imagined expectations norms produced for her prior to her conception, in utero, and everyday since her birthday. I didn’t want her to live with the bodily-not-enoughness so many have to bear.

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Not the doctor, but similar smile

The doctor stares at me with a weird smirky smile that seems to have an affected care about it or grandmotherly reassurance. The smile is unnerving because it’s packed full of how she thinks I should or would respond and the role she and this doctor’s visit might play in my expectations for my child. What she doesn’t know is how I think and feel about norms and bodies and my role as a parent for NOT setting expectations for my child and teaching her to ignore AND put the middle finger up to those who do. What the doctor doesn’t know is what makes this whole event feel so weird to me. It’s as though we are playing roles in a play that the doctor authored with a script she is holding onto and has read many times; rehearsed with other families, possibly in medical school or during her residency. It feels stilted and played out like an SNL skit; two two dimensional cardboard characters reading tele-prompters while simultaneously going through the motions.

new20yorker206-25-07And there is Sadie, looking around, distracting herself, wondering, studying, worrying about me…I’m pissed that she worries about me. I’m pissed that the doctor is putting me in a position where I am supposed to play the parent with expectations she is going to work on in front of my child. If Sadie invites me to a therapy session with her when she is 27 and we have to work through this doctor’s office visit, I won’t be surprised. The position this produces for her makes me sick to my stomach…makes me have to write this.

“If she follows at this standard deviation. If… She may be four foot eight.”

“That seems pretty tall,” I remark. “I’m 5’7. That’s less than a foot shorter. That puts her around my shoulder. That surprises me.”

I’m playing along, but this still feels weird. What are we doing? What is she doing? The doctor leads me out to the hallway, so we can look at the freaky measuring device they bounce on Sadie’s head at every appointment.

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We stare at the empty space while the doctor calculates inches to centimeters and lowers the bouncy measuring board to display my daughter’s imagined future full grown height. The empty space below the bouncy board on the measuring device fills with my silence. The doctor’s stare at me is pregnant with expectation. I stand there. I don’t know what to say. I scream for my line. It doesn’t come. The doctor beckons to me with open arms. I think she wants me to hug her. She wants to console me. I do not want to mourn over my daughter’s height differential. I do not want to feel pity or sadness or anger or loss over her not meeting some imagined potential produced by norms that rank and classify. Like a rag doll, I hug her. That seems to be the key that unlocks the moment. We move back into the office. She tells me an inspirational story about a nurse who worked for her who was 4’8″ and could do anything. She had to drive a special car, but… This is a nice story. It is a planned story. The doctor seems done with the script.

Now she is relaying changed dosing information and setting up future blood draws to monitor hormone levels. Now we are back to business as usual. Mother cries. Doctor embraces mother. Doctor tells mother inspirational story. Doctor hands mother lab orders. Mother leaves reassured, listened to, empathized with. Mother completes patient survey and gives high ratings for visit.IMG_0648

I don’t want to be a part of this play. I want to write a different one where Sadie and I are the authors, not the doctor and the growth charts. Sure people will assume she is less capable, younger, etc. But it’s not my job to be that person or to mourn because Sadie isn’t somebody she isn’t. Sadie can, but I cannot. I don’t even want to. I fear people will hurt her feelings, that people will take advantage of her, that she will be dismissed more than the next kid. But many parents raising kids beyond the White middle class heteronormative (the list could go on) regime live with those fears and worse. The only power I have is power to live with her beyond those normative scripts people want us to embody daily, so she grows up knowing she IS all I want her to be.

Talking about War with Kids: Conversation Starter

20901532 My kids have been painfully naive about the refugee crisis and ongoing turmoil in Syria and surrounding nations. I’m not sure if it’s the lack of a TV or the privilege of living their White middle class lives here in Austin, but with Sadie’s love for graphic memoirs growing and my commitment to having these tough talks with kids, I think I found a conversation starter during my last trip to Austin Books and Comics. In my last post, I bemoaned the lack of graphic memoir offerings for 2-5th graders and I believe Abirached’s I Remember Beirut can go on my rolling list. In stark black and white frames, she contrasts moments of confusion, wonder, loss, and discovery, structuring the story through I remember…stems and juxtaposing memories of pop culture, invention, commerce, and play with anxious movements, bullet holes, and shrapnel collecting.

The lyrical collage, while seemingly childlike, offers more of an adult’s protective filter on daily happenings in conflict-riddled Beirut of the 80s during the Lebanese Civil War. Nevertheless, the filter makes this a perfect jumping off point for inquiry into past and present religious conflicts, children in war (times), middle east geography, and other storytellers (authors and filmmakers) depicting war and childhood.

I did wonder about all the ways people might misread the text as dismissing the gravity of living in conflict. I had moments myself as I read that she remembered Kit Kats foil paper double linings. But the book starts with bullet holes in a windshield and ends with a burgeoning shrapnel collection. This is to say that there are opportunities for readers to ignore the gravity of the situation in their conversations and focus on all the trivia in the memoir salad.  Seems the shrapnel is just as “regular” and “everyday” as Kit Kat and I think that’s her point. This trauma gets normalized for some kids and living with that is what kids living in more secure circumstances get a chance to wonder about and try on in this read. I think it forces some perspective taking that can and should go further. It’s a strong, “safe” start.

Graphic Memoirs are THE Best

Another game changer and genre love builder

Yesterday after work and school I was sitting with Sadie (8) and Nina (5) on the porch. Sadie looked at me with her arms out to the side, big smile, exclamation points all over her voice.

“Mom, I just need books where the author writes about when she was a kid. Those are the books I like to read.”

And with that phrase, a genre love was marked (Goodbye library book passion vacuum we’ve been experiencing since we got sick of the Critter Club and hello focus, desire, exploration, reading!!)

“You like the ones where the author writes and illustrates their childhood, right? Those are called graphic memoirs.”

“What?”

“Graphic memo?”

“Memoir”

“Graphic memwa”

“Yes. This is so exciting! It means we know what kinds of books to look for when we go to the library or the bookstore”

“My friend has a book by the same Raina. It’s called Sisters. It’s about the same girl and her sister and a time when…”

What makes this an amazing moment? Since El Deafo wrapped it’s warm, weird arms around us we’ve been on a hunt for something else to read. And we do not just love graphic novels blanketly. We scoped TONS of them at the book fair (Hello Kitty ones, Science Fiction ones, Non Fiction ones). In this moment, Sadie had a realization. She made a connection between her love for one book and the next, for what really motivates her to keep reading. She likes digging into these books about adults reflecting back on their childhoods and moments of turmoil and in the case of these two books, two girls’ experiences with bodily trauma (resulting in physical change) and the social implications living after the change (loss of hearing, loss of teeth). Both books illustrate the pain of childhood. Both books illustrate the ways youth and adults love and ostracize and isolate and include and ignore and feel living with visibly different bodies (missing teeth, wearing a hearing aid) and in some cases, when the difference is invisible, but palpable (no hearing aid in, but can’t hear what’s going on around me).

For now, we will read and likely pick up Telgemeier’s Sisters and now I have a great reason to read Persepolis, but in researching this genre, I’ve realized there’s a real dearth of these graphic memoirs for late elementary readers. There’s a lot of coming of age work, but not a lot of just straight memoir of those late childhood years. Even Smile, while engaging, was a bit of a middle school social stretch. Wack stuff happens to kids of all ages. Let’s hope graphic novel artist authors keep writing and this post inspires more. Maybe I can get Nina and Sadie to collaborate on something today?

Game Changing Read: El Deafo

For a moment this summer, I had the pleasure and pain of peering through a tiny window into a piece of the life my daughter lives sometimes. I devoured it in a plane ride and a late night wrap-up with twins and a five year old in tow, so anyone can do it. Since, it’s served as a family conversation piece; communicating to EVERYONE in our tiny nuclear from age 2 to 39. I get that it’s got a Newberry, so I’m late and it’s a graphic novel memoir, so it’s what everyone’s already been blown away by, but just watching my two year olds and my husband read the same book together, hearing my five year old ask about the symbolism of the protagonist’s imagined identity in the superhero cape, and getting my own insight into some of the awkward insecurities and pure rage my eight year old lives with when she can’t hear us reminds me why I need to read more for pleasure.

This Fall I discovered (as I completed a reading survey alongside my students) that I didn’t spend enough time reading for my own pleasure. While there are certainly elements of my professional reading that give me a little of that jouissance, I mean the kind of self-directed choice making that has no pressure. no requirements. no helicopters. no expectations. And that is precisely why I was so blown away. I did not know what to expect. And there it was, like a rainbow unfolding in our family and beyond. I left a library copy by accident with my friend James who accidentally gifted it to a bereaved family member. We didn’t ask for it back and he didn’t want to return it. Then it appeared in the summer reading rewards bookshelf at the library and Sadie (with a little of my motherly urging), picked it up and brought it home for everyone to fall into as I already had. Thank you, Ce Ce Bell. Thank you to all authors who put themselves and their lives into composition. Thank you to all the artists who push boundaries that are, in my opinion, slowly eroding when it comes to what counts as literature and what counts as scholarship. Your work is a gift.

Visual note taking

It’s one of those things I’ve always known is good for you, but had never really tried to do. Then, all of a sudden, I was reading and taking notes about the (im)materiality of literacies, looked down, and I was doing it – organically – and it felt really useful and I wanted to tell the world all about its power and how it forced me to slow down and really think about how I could capture the mini idea the authors were talking about in a quick sketch I might return to at a later date. It’s one of those things I had always known is good for you. Makes me wonder if there was ever anything to all those doodles I worked on during lectures in high school and college.