Monday, January 31, 2011

My Dinner with *gasp* the Tiger Mother

If you haven't heard the wailing and gnashing of teeth produced by Amy Chua, the most feared mother on the planet, please eject the eight-track tape you're listening to, stop playing Pong for a moment, and visit the The Wall Street Journal to read what all the fuss is about.

In brief - just before its January 11th release, The Journal published an excerpt from Ms. Chua's book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  Because Ms. Chua touched the Third Rail of American Parenting (that many Western notions of child rearing are "weak-willed and indulgent," and that Westerners "poorly prepare their children for their own futures"), the backlash was swift.

Last week, The Journal noted that the article had elicited more comments than any in its history.  That was when the comment count stood at 5,700 - now it's closer to 7,700.

All because a Tiger Mother was thought to roar.

You know what we called Tiger Mothers when I was a kid?  Strict.

A strict mom, though, would just incite vitriol in these, our pretty days of baby-whisperers.  If the tone of the comments was merely vitriolic, if they stemmed mainly from Western mommies and daddies offended by the title of the Journal's piece (Why Chinese Mothers are Superior), if they stayed in the realm of "that mom is incapable of serious thinking...."  If.  If.  If.  Instead, they teeter then crash into the chasm populated by doctrinaire Klansmen.   Ms. Chua is a "Crazy Asian." Or:  "China's really dirty.  Doesn't that invalidate her?"  Or: "Sixty million people were executed under Mao.  Ipso facto, Amy is a bad mom."

You can't make this stuff up.

One could discuss the racism that infects many of the words hurled towards Ms. Chua - to trace these xenophobic projections to their roots in an attempt to, what?  Understand the hate?  Sympathize with the intolerant?

That exercise would prove as productive as trying to talk guns out of Arizona.  So I won't.

But we're left with these fraudulent notions:  Ms Chua is only concerned with the appearance of her "Trophy Children."  She's a "bully" who is guilty of "child abuse."  Or, simply, from the most eloquent of commentators, that Ms. Chua is a "creep."

Swift was the backlash, yes.  Swift and extreme - even from the mainstream.  Check out NBC News.  Their Education Correspondent, Rehema Ellis, could barely keep the snark in her voice at bay when she interviewed Ms. Chua.  And you want to know why?  Because Ms. Chua was the evil Tiger Mother who dared - not to insinuate but to declare - that Chinese mothers were the best mothers and that she was the epitome of the Chinese mother and that she was therefore perfect.

The only problem with that is - it isn't true.  But to find out the truth, you'd have to read the book.

Hey - what are you doing?  Take your fingers out of your ears.  I just said, you should read the book.  Hey!

You know what's needed here?  Let me put it in words known and loved by y'all:  You need a timeout.  Now.  Go on, slink over to that corner there and just be quiet for ten seconds.

I said, ten seconds!  Is that so hard?

I just need a ten-count to say one thing:  go read the book.

Because, see, you haven't read the book.  And yet you stand in judgment after (maybe) having read the naughty bits that the Journal strung together.

So, please, go read the book.  How can you make an informed decision without having read the book?

If you only glanced at the opening pages of The Diary of a Young Girl, you'd think, what drivel!  Who is this silly teenager Anne Frank?  Who'd want to spend time reading about her birthday, her presents, or who the prettiest girl in her class is?

Go read the book.

If you only watched the first moments of the Wizard of Oz, you would leave thinking, black and white movies ain't for me.

Go see the movie. 

If you only caught the beginning of King Lear, you'd believe Regan and Goneril are doting daughters and that Cordelia is an unappreciative wench.  How'd that work out for Lear?

Go watch the play.

Take the time - instead of making deluded decisions because it's easier, faster, more fun.

Misinformed Criticism - it's the new black.

I read The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother because I had the opportunity to have dinner with Ms. Chua back in October.  October 27th, to be exact.  I remember the date because our dinner happened to coincide with Game One of the World Series.  You can read about that here. I'm, um, a bit of a baseball fanatic, so I thought I was really making a sacrifice, missing the game and all.

That was before I met Ms. Chua.

It was beautiful in San Francisco - earthquake weather.  Calm, clear and warm on that October afternoon heading into night.  I'd been invited with a few other booksellers to have dinner with Ms. Chua and representatives from Penguin Books (thanks Ms. Wood!) in celebration of the imminent publication of the Tiger Mother.

I liked her immediately.  She was gracious, smart, easy to talk to.  Plus - she had two daughters, I had two daughters.  And better yet, her girls were separated by three years, just like mine - and just like mine, her oldest was a Monkey, and her youngest was a Boar.  Sure, her daughters were twelve years ahead of my own, but they shared the characteristics that the Chinese Zodiac ascribed to them.  Quick-witted, artistic and polite are the Monkeys.  Gallant are the Boars, gallant and sturdy - resolute, even.  Very, very resolute.  And very, very passionate.

Can I tell you the hardest thing I've ever attempted?  Being a good father.  You want to know the only thing I can think of that would be harder?  Writing down all my missteps.  All my lapses in judgment.  Not only writing them down, but then sharing them with friend and foe alike.

But I don't write down my mistakes because I don't have the guts.  Or the courage.

Do you?

During that dinner with Ms. Chua, I learned she had the courage I didn't.

Ms. Chua writes that her daughter Sophia told her that piano practice was once interrupted by mother saying to daughter, If the next time's not PERFECT, I'm going to TAKE ALL YOUR STUFFED ANIMALS AND BURN THEM (more on that later).

Please, for me, imagine something awkward, something mean, that you've said to a child, parent, or friend.  Come on, you can do this.  Think of the worst - the most unfair - thing you've said to someone.

There, do you have it?  Awful, isn't it.

Now, go tell all your friends you said it.  Or admit it to a group of strangers.  Don't give them context - don't let them see your side, what you were feeling.  Just accept their opprobrium and shut up about it.

Wait, you don't want to admit to any of your failings, at least not publicly?  Ok, well, you don't have to go full Monty or anything.  Maybe admitting the worst thing is too much to ask.  How about just poking at yourself a bit?
You can't imagine the Tiger Mother poking fun of herself, can you?  But again, that's because you haven't read the book.  She's funny.  And self-effacing.  During our dinner, she answered all our questions with good humor and wit.  Even when some of the booksellers poked a hot stick at the issue that would arouse such animus.  Ms. Chua of course asked those questioners - delicately, delicately - if they had read the book.  If they'd read the book they'd know where she comes down, in the final final, about what's better - East or West.  Then she made us laugh, as she often did that night.

At the beginning of the book, she describes that her first daughter's name, Sophia, means wisdom.  And that "from the moment Sophia was born, she displayed a rational temperament and exceptional powers of concentration.  She got those qualities from her father."

See, that's a joke.  Oh, but wait.  It also chips away at your preconceived notion that Ms. Chua is full of herself.

Go read the book.

There's another moment when Ms. Chua describes a conversation she's having with her husband, Jed Rubenfeld.  Much to her surprise, she allowed her daughter, Lulu, to get a dog - as a bribe for playing a piece on the violin especially well.  (Even though she proclaimed earlier that she took a dim view of graft.)  "I don't believe in bribing children," she wrote.  "Both the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have ratified international conventions against bribery."

Another joke?

Wait, there's more:  "A lot of people liked Lulu--there was something almost magnetic about her inability to ingratiate.  Thank God we live in America...where no doubt because of the American Revolution rebelliousness is valued. In China, they'd have sent Lulu to a labor camp."

She.  Is.  Not.  Being.  Serious.

Let's go back to the dog.  To Coco.  Ms. Chua admits that she soon began to work the dog as hard as she worked her daughters.  For Coco's benefit, of course.  After one evening when she'd engaged in a shouting match over how much time her children should practice their instruments, Mr. Rubenfeld - in private - expressed worry that his wife was, perhaps, pushing the girls too hard.  She fought back.  "All you think about is writing your own books and your own future.  What dreams do you have for Sophia, or for Lulu?  Do you ever even think about that?  What are your dreams for Coco?"

Her husband paused before - wait for it, wait for it - he burst into laughter and kissed the top of her head.  "Dreams for Coco--that's really funny, Amy."

This story - it's almost sheepish.  And it is very funny.  But you wouldn't know that about Ms. Chua because you haven't read the book.

So go read the book.

Heck, you don't even have to read the book.  You could just read the cover.  Do you have time for that?  Right under the title - Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother - there are three sentences.  Do you have time in your busy schedule to read three sentences?
  • This is a Story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs.
  • This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones.
  • But instead, it's about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.
And if you had taken the time to read that, maybe you'd have an informed opinion.  Maybe you would've scratched your head and said, Hmm, that's not what I thought that there Tiger Mother was all about.

Because I'll tell you what her story is about.  It's about one woman trying to do one job - mothering - the best way she knows how.  How do you parent?  The best way you know how?  Did you ever make any mistakes?  Because mistakes are easy.

Mistakes, I've made a few.  The other day, I pocket-dialed Karen.  She wasn't in her office, so my call rolled over to voicemail.  When she played the long message, the message that I had no idea I was leaving, she heard me having a discussion with our youngest, Kristina.

I have to hand it to you, Nick - Karen told me later - you never raised your voice.  I just heard a lot of background noise interrupted by you saying, Now Kristina, I really need you to calm down.  You kept saying that again and again.  The only time I could tell you were angry, Karen said, was there at the end when I heard you say, I am going to count to three.  If you haven't stopped when I get to three - I'm gonna rip her head off.

What Karen couldn't see, naturally, was the Barbie Doll I held in my hands - Barbie smirking up at me the way she does - while I threatened my daughter with the dismemberment of her favorite doll if she didn't calm down.

Who needed calming, can you tell me that?

Ms. Chua threatened to burn some stuffed animals, I threatened to go all French Revolution on a Barbie Doll.  The only difference is - Ms. Chua used her experience to illustrate a story, a story about how her parenting techniques left something to be desired.  About how she was forced to change her mind about what was right and wrong when it came to being a good mother.

But you wouldn't know that.  You wouldn't know that Ms. Chua takes the reader on a journey, and the territory she gets to is vastly different than the territory she left.  You don't know how the story ends, because you didn't bother to read the book.

Can you do me a favor already?

Go read the book.

It'll be a little different than mine.  Inside mine, Ms. Chua wrote, For Nick - Here's to Monkeys + Boars + the Bay Area...Go Giants & Tiger parents!  All best wishes.  Amy Chua.

Still, please - go read the book.

Available at an independent bookseller near you.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Begin the Beguine

'Twas another New York New Year's Celebration, just like last year.  Again, this doesn't mean we were in Times Square when that Waterford Ball dropped - it just means we celebrated the dropping when New Yorkers did, even though we were in California.  Midnight there, 9 o'clock here - perfect for old fuddy-duds like us with kids.

There was a time when we'd be dancing to Superbooty in San Francisco, drinking backstage with those rock 'n rollers after the gig because our friends knew the guitarist.

We were young then.

When we first moved to Alameda, we introduced pots and pans to the neighborhood.  On New Year's Night.  We're pretty sure pots hadn't been banged at night, outside, before us.  Coulda been, but if I bet, I'd bet no.

Pots and pans were big in Modesto.  Karen and I, growing up together - but separate, we wouldn't meet until high school - we banged pots at the stroke of midnight.  I banged on Sherwood Avenue, Karen way across town causing a racket on Carolyn.

So we brought that to Monte Vista on the sleepy island.  Our first New Year's, we woke the street up.  Grainne and Stuart, right next door - neither of us had kids yet.  We were both two years from kids.  Three doors down - they had a full house. Four kids, the oldest ten, the youngest - one?  Two?  Barely two, if two.  So when we banged, and hooted, well - the kids thought it was alarming.  Alarming and fun.  Adults, taking wooden spoons to pans?  What's up with that? 

We didn't know we were starting a tradition - how can you know you're starting a tradition there at the beginning?  The next year, we warned them to be ready for more of the same - the second to youngest swore he'd be there for us.  He'd wait up, he could do it.

When night fell, and midnight followed, we banged like we did that first year.  But the good souls were asleep at the witching hour.  Karen had me go over and leave a pot on their porch with a big wooden spoon nestled inside.  Evidence that we had banged.

So long ago now.

Last year was our first New York New Year's - honestly, I forget if we made it to twelve after we got home.  I know we didn't make it last night.  What's the First Rule of drinking?

Don't mix.

What's the Second Rule?

Don't mix.

So last night, we had some punch thing.  Cloud called the bar he used to frequent in Oregon to get the recipe.  Lotta alcohol.  Then I mixed up some Candy Cane Martinis.  I wanted to spice them like Jeremy had, but I didn't have any Pepper Vodka.  And of course we couldn't find the candy canes that should dangle from the lip of the glass, so they were just strong without the candy fun.  And then Harry's Margarita's.  And champagne.

I may have had a beer or two.

Anyway - that would be the definition of mixing.  When we got home, around ten, after watching the ball drop an hour earlier, at Natasha and Harry's - with Cloud and Kate, Sharon and Nick, Brad and Janine, Liz and Donar.  And the kids.  The kids!  All the kids.  How'd we all get so many kids?

We got home with the kids and tucked them into bed, safe and sound.  The two of us?  We did not pass out.  We glided gently off to slumber - smiling and humming carols.

Until midnight, when Karen poked me and said, They're banging pots and pans.  Get up, up, you have to go out.

So I dressed like a thief in the dark, and stood on our porch while the oldest of the neighbor kids - now 18 and applying to college - led her merry band of revelers in a rousing rendition of Auld Lang Syne on copper kettle, stainless pot, and tin can.

Should old acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?

Beautiful, beautiful sounds.  And they laughed and I laughed and then I called for a second round.

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!
And surely I’ll buy mine!
And we'll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And still laughing I reminded them that it wasn't too long ago when I was the one doing the waking, but now here they were, banging while we slept.

While we slept.

There will come a time when we're the ones up again - but for now, we're tired.  Blessedly tired.  So we'll sleep when we can, rest when we can, and before we know it, it'll be Elizabeth thinking about college, or travel, banging her pot on the porch - laughing in the dark and walking down the block, Kristina hitting her pan even louder, Kristina probably with two lids turned into cymbals - crashcrashcrash - because how much fun would that be?


Happy New Year - and all best in the year to come.

And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give us a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my dear.
For auld lang syne.
We'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.