Newest Chart: Moving the needle one hash mark at a time

July 31, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

Late last night, when the girls had brushed their teeth and were settling into their beds, I went to Twelve’s room to say good night. In the dark, she scooted to a sitting position.

“Mamma, I have an idea.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Sit down,” she said, patting her bed. “This might take a while.”

Earlier in the evening we’d watched President Obama’s eulogy at the funeral service of civil rights activist John Lewis. In his trademark style, President Obama inspired us and made us believe that we have it within us to be the change we want to see in the world. His challenge reminded us, too, that what we have right now is what we get. This life, this summer, this opportunity to be with one another.

I don’t know for sure if his speech spurred Twelve to her “idea.” Maybe it was the spirit of inclusion and togetherness that John Lewis fought so hard for every day of his life. Maybe it was, as she told us last night, just the boredom of summer break.

I suspect it was all of those things and more. Her idea boiled down to this: she was requesting that we spend one day a week unplugged. No phones; no devices; no computers. Minimal TV. Just our family spending time together.

Twelve’s assertion was that she spent part of her day bored. She didn’t know what to do with herself in her room if she wasn’t on her iPad talking to friends or reading borrowed books through our local library’s app. She thought we all spent too much time on our devices and wanted us to change that. It would take care of the boredom and bring us that much closer together.

The comment about her boredom caught me off guard at first. Before summer break, we drew up a list of academic tasks for the girls each week this summer, but we also made sure to keep the mood and pace light. When she made the comment about being bored in her room, my first instinct was to ask whether what we’d designed for her and Fourteen for “summer homework” wasn’t enough. Then, in my mind, I took a step back and thought about her tone and mood.

The pandemic has brought so much change to our lives. Much of it has been challenging and frustrating. So much of it has been confusing. But there have been a few slivers of daylight in this darkness we’re all fighting.

I’ve seen changes in Twelve; good changes. Back in the spring, almost a month into lockdown, my husband and I saw Twelve’s frustration level mount by leaps and bounds. For once, we couldn’t offer her any concrete answers about a life event. We’ve got scores of stories about people’s kindness or lack thereof, the challenges that come in school or college, or what it means to move from one job (or part of the country) to another.

But this? None of us have lived through a pandemic before. We were still trying to process what it meant for us as people. How on earth were we equipped to provide that information to others, particularly those most dependent on us?

The pandemic doesn’t care about race or creed or politics; it also doesn’t care about parenting challenges.

We decided to go back to a tried-and-tested method for Twelve. We asked her to pull out a notebook and start keeping a journal to record her feelings. Any time she felt sad or angry, she had to write about it. At the very minimum, she had to write in the journal two to three times a week.

At the time, we didn’t specify that she had to share the journal with us, but after we told her to start writing in it the notebook began appearing on our dresser with regularity. Now, as I leaf back through it, I can see the changes in glacial movements.

“Today I feel pretty average,” she wrote as the opening line to her first entry in April. She concluded the entry with, “I miss [school]. I miss hugging my friends.”

Later in the month, she used the journal to vent. When a friend of a friend requested Twelve’s email (without any of us, including Twelve, knowing about it,) the child started emailing Twelve with enthusiasm. Twelve answered her notes with minimum patience, and at the end of April, she started her entry with the title: “4th Graders: Why do they like ‘big kids?’” After spending several lines ranting about constant notifications, she ended the entry with, “Aside from being grumpy about [them,] I’m okay. Monday is a fresh start to a new week.”

She continued to write about tests and friends and missing out on playing soccer for the park district’s team. One continuous theme, however, was the boredom she felt. In all honesty, if I had to pick between a bored child and a perpetually angry one, I’d pick bored any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

In between the lines about being bored, though, Twelve’s tone started to change. She mentioned things she was excited about: her big sister’s birthday and getting to share animal facts with family members over Zoom. And the “I’m bored” comments have started to morph more into “Today was an okay day” kind of comments.

The needle has begun to move one hash mark at a time.

Last night, then, when she mentioned her new plan to combat boredom, she used the words in a completely different tone. Gone was the whining and the narrow-focused attitude that plagues tweens and teens. In its place was a matter-of-fact approach. She didn’t have anything to entertain her in her room, so she decided to find a solution.

From the time the girls were too young to understand the words, I’ve made them repeat a particular sentence after me: Smart girls find a way to fix the problem. As they got older, I forced them to parrot it back like a call-and-response—“Smart girls do what?” I’d demand, and one or both would roll their eyes and intone, with flat words, “Find a way to fix the problem,” the syllables words drawn out to indicate how utterly sick and tired they were of having to repeat the adage.

Maybe, though, all of that call-and-response, that drumming it into their heads is actually coming back to us. Maybe they’re starting to fix the problems, not just throw complaints at them. Twelve still has moments of getting worked up over something, but if she can find a way to fix problems during a pandemic then maybe—just maybe—we can say something good came out of it after all.

 

 

Latest Chart: How a tape deck got us on the Titanic

July 28, 2017

By Ekta R. Garg

Who knew that a cassette player could inspire a discussion about the Titanic?

At the start of the summer, I bought a cassette player for my studio. You know, the kind with the little black handle and the CD player built into the top. Of course, this tape deck also comes with a jack where you can plug in an mP3 player, but I can ignore it and still play my music retro style.

I finally got around to addressing the tape player. Eleven has been bugging me all week to let her help with household chores more, so I invited her to go into the basement with me to grab the box of tapes I knew I’d stashed down there when we first moved in last year.

“Why do you need tape?” she asked, when I told her I was going down to get one.

“Not tape,” I said, “A tape. As in, a cassette.”

“I have tape in my room,” Nine said, trailing along.

“Not that kind of tape,” I said, although I caught the grin that told me she was being facetious.

I pulled out the box and Eleven offered to carry it upstairs for me, even though it was a little heavy. At the last minute, I looked in the plastic tub with CDs and decided to grab one to check the quality of the CD player. I pondered my choices for a few minutes then pulled out the soundtrack for the movie Titanic.

“Oh, no,” Nine said, “not that. Why do you want to listen to something so sad?”

My girls, of course, have never listened to the soundtrack of the film. They may have heard it in passing, but they’ve never opened the CD case in anticipation of the dulcet tones of what the ship meant with Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet falling in love on it. For me, however, the Titanic CD holds many fond memories.

Even though I really wanted to play the CD, at the last minute I couldn’t resist the allure of the tape deck and pulled out a cassette instead. One of the best things about technology from the 1980s and 1990s is that it’s pretty straightforward. Even today, you just open it up and plug it in. That’s pretty much it. Nothing fancy to program; no novel-length instructions to read.

After listening to one of my most favorite Hindi songs (Kay Sera Sera from the Anil Kapoor-Madhuri Dixit film Pukar, in case you’re wondering,) talk turned back to the Titanic and how its story related to the movie.

“Isn’t it sad?” Nine wanted to know.

“Well, the story of the ship is sad, but the music is lovely,” I said. “It really sounds like what the ship would.”

Somehow that sparked a conversation that brought in elements of the movie and the actual sinking, weaving the two in a narrative that lasted for almost 20 minutes. The girls wanted to know about the story of the film, and I gave them the short version. They were intrigued by the fact that Rose, Kate Winslet’s character, was engaged to one person and falls in love with another.

“He didn’t treat her well,” I said of Rose’s fiancé.

“Yeah, well, men take advantage of their wives because they think they’re weak,” Nine said pragmatically.

I thought for a moment about answering her, but then Eleven piped up.

“What was her fiance’s name?”

I tried to remember Billy Zane’s character’s name (Cal,) but for the life of me I couldn’t at the time.

“I don’t know,” I finally said.

“Bob,” Eleven said. “He’s Bob the Builder.”

The three of us giggled, and then I went on with the story of Rose and Jack. We talked about the class difference between the two and the fact that Cal, Rose’s fiancé, survives in the end while Jack dies.

“But why?” Nine said. “You would think the bad guy would die in the end.”

“I know,” I said, “but he and Rose don’t end up together.”

I described the scene at the end where Rose hides from Cal so that she doesn’t have to leave the dock with him.

“Yes, see, Bob used to build part-time,” Eleven explained, “but being with Rose distracted him from building. When he didn’t find Rose, that’s when he started doing it full time and became…”

“Bob the Builder!” we all finished in a chorus.

I shared the excitement of the Oscar awards when Titanic came out and how the makeup department got a special nod for its work, particularly toward the end of the film when all the bodies of the dead passengers are shown just floating in the water. Our conversation continued in the car as we made our way to the Y for the kids’ half day of camp.

“But what was so special about the makeup?” Nine asked.

I explained how a body bloated by water takes on a different visage and that the makeup department most likely had to do some serious research so their work would appear realistic when the time came to shoot those scenes. That led us down a short rabbit trail about plausibility in a story, both film and written, and how an audience is willing to believe almost anything if it’s presented in a way that makes sense within the larger story world.

As we chatted, I remembered all of a sudden that a writing client of mind had written a pretty compelling novel about the Titanic to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the ship’s sinking. I shared that story in brief with the girls as well. The more we talked, the more details of the movie, my client’s book, and the general popularity of the story of the ill-fated ship came back. It struck me, as we left the house for camp, that the movie itself is now almost 20 years old.

Because Eleven and Nine have no emotional attachment to James Cameron’s film, they were able to joke around about how Rose might have wanted to be free of all the men in her life anyway. We also had time and space for more inquisitive lines of thought as Nine wondered aloud what would have happened to Rose, Jack, and everyone else if the Titanic hadn’t sunk. Of course, the answer to that was an easy one: the movie, most likely, wouldn’t have been made.

After dropping the girls at camp, I continued to think about Titanic, the ship that inspired the movie, and my client’s book. I emailed the client later to ask about her novel, and I spent part of the day reminiscing about what the soundtrack meant to me. It’s been an interesting couple of weeks pondering the past, and today’s discussion is proof positive that while we never know what parenting will bring us on a day-to-day basis we know it’ll always surprise us.