Imperfect Serenity

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Monday, July 31, 2006


I’m learning a few things from dog training that’s making me think about the ways I’ve been training my kids:

1. Let them know that you’re the “Alpha dog” and that they need to obey you. When I first became a parent, I figured I wanted my children to question things like bad government policies when they become adults, so I let them question my policies. Of course, I now have children who are independent thinkers and good arguers, skills I may be proud of when Megan wins a case before the Supreme Court, but which are currently rather annoying. Since I don’t need another family member giving me a hard time, and since I’m not that concerned about the dog’s creative expression, I’m asserting my authority with the pup. I say, “Spud, crate!” and he goes in. It’s very gratifying.

2. Dog trainers emphasize that you should only say the dog’s name once when giving a command. They explain that if you say, “Spud, Spuud, Spud! SPUD!” the dog will not learn that his name is Spud. He’ll learn that his name is Spudspudspudspud, and he won’t respond until he hears his whole name. Likewise, if you say, “Sit, sit, sit! SIT!” he’ll either sit on the fourth command, or ignore you completely. I absolutely wished I had understood this before having children. On a typical morning I say, “Luke, get dressed” at least four times before he actually does it. He certainly seems to think that his name is “Lukelukelukeluuuuke!”

3. Don’t reward barking. I’m very proud of myself for resisting the impulse to run and rescue Spud on the few occasions when he’s barked to get out of his crate. On Friday, for example, when I was franticly packing to get out of town, he sensed something was up and started yelping. But I steeled myself, ignored him, and he quieted down. In contrast, when Megan was born, I was convinced that her emotional and spiritual health depended on my jumping at every whimper. I wanted her to trust God and the universe, so I worked hard to meet her every need. I still believe in responding to our baby’s needs, but somehow I now have a nine-year-old who thinks she needs a cell phone. In hindsight, a little delayed gratification earlier in life might not have been such a bad thing.

4. A well exercised dog will be better behaved. One of the gifts Spud is giving us is the habit of walking as a family. Tom and I have often said, “Let’s take a walk after dinner,” a suggestion that has usually been poorly received. Now we have no choice, so our little troop is getting out and about, getting exercise, meeting the neighbors, and appreciating how many birds and squirrels live in our city (since Spud tries to chase every bird or squirrel). Although walking adds one more thing to our schedule, I think it has a calming effect on all of us.

5. Keep the dog in his crate while house training and beyond. Dog trainers say that dogs feel safe in their crates, which are like private dens. They also keep puppy from eating the couch, which is generally good for the dog/owner relationship. Dare I say how tempting it would be to get Luke a crate?

But here the differences between raising a dog and raising a boy become inescapable. I’m preparing Spud for a life of napping and following orders. I want him to be content and healthy, but if chewing on the couch is his deepest desire—well, tough. Of course, there are people who spend their lives napping and following orders, maybe even a majority of Americans from the current look of things. Our democracy is being dismantled and our children are being sent off to kill and die in a war that was a mistake to begin with. But most Americans are napping in their crates, having learned that their barking will be ignored. I don’t know whether to blame our parenting or our politicians, but it seems someone taught us obedience a bit too well.

Unlike Spud, Luke will eventually leave my home and venture out into a world of possibilities, some of them pretty scary. He’ll need to be able to walk alone, express his needs, argue for what he thinks is right, and trust in God. Temping as it is, I don’t think putting him in a crate (physically or metaphorically) will help him in the long run. With that in mind, I’ll continue to give him a long leash and get my short-term satisfaction from having an obedient dog.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


A few days ago I was at a party and met a middle aged woman who said, “I want to do something really important before I die!” She listed some possibilities, like going to jail to end the war or restoring America’s democracy. I understood her sentiment. With so many problems in the world, I often wonder if I should be doing more to make an impact on it. But as I said to her, I’m not sure what to do. I know people who have gone to jail, and the war is still going.

Later I remembered something my mother said to me at least a year before she died: “If I hadn’t had you, Eileen, I don’t think my life would have been worth anything.” I was sad that she felt that way about her life, while also being touched at what, for my mother, was an unusual amount of sentiment. It was clear that her other work never meant more to her than a paycheck.

I’ve thinking about both my mother and the woman at the party as I’ve been sorting through what kind of work I’m meant to do next. I do have a drive to achieve something, though it’s not necessarily fame or fortune. It has more to do with wanting to make a difference in the world, whether through my writing, my teaching, or my activism. I have a sense that I’m meant to do something, I’m just not always sure what it is. But the past few days I’ve been questioning whether this is a calling or just ego. We live in a society that tells people that the worth of their work can be measured in dollars. Mothering, therefore, is worth what we get paid for it.

Perhaps part of what I’m called to do is affirm the value of the work I do as a mother. There have been a few things lately that have reminded me how important this work is. One is seeing a cousin fall into a snake pit of problems that I think can more or less be blamed on the extremely poor parenting she received as a child. Now that she’s twenty, she is responsible for her own choices, but I can’t help thinking she might be making better choices if her parents had made better ones. It’s reminded me that creating a safe, nurturing home for my children is important work that makes my life worthwhile, even if I never publish my writing or end the war.

On the other hand, what good is a safe, nurturing home if my children inherit a dangerous, debilitating world? From the rising murder rate in Philadelphia to the destruction in the Middle East, it’s clear that many children do not have a safe, nurturing environment. What is my responsibility to them? Or to my cousin, for that matter, who I have tried to help, but not nearly as much as she needs? Volunteering at the local prison to help strangers (as I used to do in Scranton) is much easier than helping a relative who may be entering a life of crime herself. It’s easier to keep your boundaries as a do-gooder volunteer. Trying to just do good in your life is a bit messier and not as gratifying for the ego.

Speaking of the mundane, the newest part of my work is walking the dog at lunch time. At first I thought it was a waste of my work time, but as I walk I chat with neighbors and thus build community in an ordinary kind of way. I get a little exercise and spend a little of the dog’s abundant energy so that he can (hopefully) play more gently with the children when they get home. It’s clear that they are learning a lot from having him, so I’ve just added the dog to my list of things I’m doing because it’s good for my kids. It’s not romantic. Maybe it’s not enough, but it is important.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


I’ve had it with Disney. It’s bad enough that their female characters have waists that would choke Thumbelina. It’s bad enough that many Disney films reflect racial stereotypes, like The Lion King, where the darker lion is the evil one, and the shiftless hyenas have African American accents. It’s bad enough that they’ve convinced us that a trip to Disney Land/World is as obligatory for middle class American families as a trip to Mecca is for Muslims. Today, however, I am outraged by Disney’s marketing genius because they have got my seven-year-old boy begging to see a PG13 movie.

According to our newspaper, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest includes “supernatural scares, violence, mayhem, adult themes.” Despite this, Pirates of the Caribbean is the film currently featured at McDonalds, where children young enough to suck on a French fry can get a pirate patch, pirate ear ring, and a telescope with a scull on it. At Borders and Barnes & Nobel, they’re selling Pirates of the Caribbean treasure chests and sticker books. At the toy store, Pirates of the Caribbean action figures are available, with 4+ as the recommended age. These are a sword’s length from the Superman Returns figures and around the corner from the Lord of the Rings stuff, two other movies that are too scary for the four-year-olds targeted for the toys, though at least those films have good guys. Aren’t pirates just violent thieves anyway?

When I pointed out to my seven-year-old that they were making pirate toys for children too young to see the movie, Luke explained, “They want kids to beg their parents to see it.” As if I hadn’t figured that out. At least he understands that the marketers are trying to manipulate him, and me. In fact he understands quite a bit about the whole system. When he asked for the pirate treasure chest at Borders and I said, “Maybe you can get it for Christmas,” Luke astutely responded, “They won’t be selling the chest at Christmas. The movie is out now.” Of course, he’s right. It will be something else by Christmas.

“Don’t be afraid to say no to your children,” the experts warn us, and of course, we have to be able to say no, especially when it comes to something as important as protecting them from violent images. But when highly paid marketing experts are sitting around strategizing about how to make my son beg, I feel like a canoe up against a ship of pirates. It’s just not fair to make parents work this hard to do the right thing.

Monday, July 17, 2006


Originally uploaded by EileenF.
So here's the pooch. He's doing well, and we are all walking more! The vet says he thinks he looks like a whippet more than a pitbull and to just tell people he's "mixed."

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Dog Duty

Sunday we adopted a dog from the city pound. The children are eager to feed and walk him and earnest in their analysis of his every gesture. Tom and I, on the other hand, are just hoping this isn’t a huge mistake.

It took years of begging on Megan’s part to get us to even seriously consider a dog. Then we had months of discussion until every family member was willing. I myself have vacillated quite a bit. Late last year I thought I’d be ready after my mom died, but then when she did, I realized I had more freedom of movement that I’d had in a decade, which I wasn’t ready to give it up. Then, this summer I started feeling open to the idea of a dog. I think it was when Megan said, “I want a best friend to tell all my secrets to” with such sincerity that I couldn’t forget my own childhood dog, who throughout adolescence was the family member I felt closest to. Tom was still resistant and asked the kids lots of questions about who was going to do what. Finally, I think he felt outnumbered. When Tom started looking up doggy pictures on the Internet, I knew we were on our way.

It was fun visiting the two biggest pounds in our area and seeing my children’s enthusiasm and tenderness. Megan and Luke were particularly taken with a medium sized brown mutt who is thought to be part pit bull terrier. He had a piece of cloth over a shaved part of his leg, and Luke was concerned that no one else would want him. I was concerned about the pit bull part (despite everyone’s assurances that it’s the training, not the breed, that matters), and at the last minute tried to steer them toward a smaller mutt at the SPCA. Luke, however, was adamant. He had understood that the city pound kills the dogs they can’t find homes for, whereas the SPCA does not. That was hard to argue with.

But Thursday night, just after I signed the adoption papers, I was suddenly hit with regret and fear. I felt like crying, knowing I was giving up a little of the freedom I’ve been able to reclaim as the kids have gotten older. Sure the kids will put his food out, and after he’s trained, they’ll be able to walk him. But I’m the one who is going to have to make sure the dog gets walked sometime during the day. I’m the one who is going to make a dog-care plan when we go away for the weekend. I’m the one who’s going to feel responsible. During the two days we were waiting to be approved for the adoption, I wondered if there was a way I could get out of it without breaking my children’s little hearts. Finally a neighbor said, “You won’t regret anything you do that will be good for your kids.” That helped.

The morning before we went to get the dog, I told Megan and Luke they wouldn’t be able to hit each other any more because it might upset the dog. I explained that he might want to protect the person getting hit and could bite the hitter. So they laughingly hit each other all the way home from Quaker meeting, celebrating their last chance to fight in the car.

So far I have to say it has worked. We’ve had two days of family peace, and Luke hasn’t complained once about his job as poop-picker-upper. Megan shines in the role of nurturer, and Tom even offered to take the dog running this morning. For my part, I still feel uneasy about the new responsibility, but I feel reassured that we got a great dog. He sits quietly in his crate during dinner, and after a little barking the first night, he was quiet all last night. He is playful, but not hyper. He’s the color of a potato, so we named him Spud.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


We’re back home after a wonderful eight days in Ireland. We’ve sorted through the mail, done five loads of laundry, returned most of the messages on the answering machine, and printed our pictures. So now it’s time to reflect on the trip and try to sum it up in a blog post.

A highlight for me was visiting the counties where my grandparents came from, Cavan and Longford in the Irish midlands. In Cavan we only got to see the church my grandmother would have attended and the beautiful green hills nearby. In Longford, however, we tracked down my mother’s second cousin, a woman who lived with my mom when she first came to the United States fifty years ago. I knew the two women had stayed in touch, but I couldn’t find a phone number and didn’t know if she’d mind me showing up unexpectedly with my crew. We chanced it, flagging down a postman to find her house. As it turned out, Bridie was thrilled. She gave me a big hug and said, “Oh, is that Megan and Luke?” It seems my mother had been bragging about us for years, and she knew all about us, down to my politics. We had a lovely 3 ½ hour visit, met Bridie’s daughter, who is about my age, and arranged for Megan to become pen pals with her fourth cousin!

I have always felt a strong connection with Ireland, and this time I gained a deeper appreciation of the history. When I studied in Dublin for a semester in the 1980s, people were still reluctant to talk about the Irish potato famine that killed somewhere between one and three million people and drove at least another million to emigrate. Since then, Ireland has marked the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the famine, cracking open the “conspiracy of silence” that observers said enveloped the Irish after the event. The most interesting exploration of it was a museum dedicated to the famine, set on the grounds of an old glamorous estate.

First we went on the guided tour of the mansion and saw the room full of antique toys and the kitchen where fresh marmalade was made each morning for the landlord’s family. Then, right next store, the Famine Museum explained how the Anglo-Irish landlords (who had been given huge estates as part of England’s plan to control Ireland) kept eating their marmalade and exporting their livestock while their Irish tenants starved. I had always heard that the English had been indifferent to Irish suffering, but on this trip I learned how landlords actually took advantage of the famine to clear their land of the inconvenient peasants. Some offered their tenants boat fare to America, rather than food. Within a few years, the country’s population was cut in half.

I actually knew much of this before, and I knew that my father’s family probably came to the US around the time of the famine. But in trying to look up the place my maternal grandmother came from—Lurgan, a name that’s not even on the map—I discovered another possible link between my family and the famine. While Lurghan is only a church surrounded by fields today, it was actually a town in the seventeenth century. It was one of many towns in Ireland that vanished back into the bog, taking stories and ghosts with it.

We met a woman who worships at the Lurgan church and works in the County Cavan Museum. Even she didn’t know Lurgan had been a town until I read it to her from one of the books in the museum gift shop. I’m not surprised she didn’t know. I don’t know much about what happened on my spot of land in Philadelphia a hundred and fifty years ago, or what ghost lay buried here.

Leaving Cavan on our last day and flying back to Philadelphia, I was aware of being a tiny link in a long historical chain. From the ancient people who built stone temples on Irish cliffs, to the early Christian monks, the famine victims, and the emigrants…through me to the daughter who takes Irish dance lessons and wants to correspond with her fourth cousin, as well as see the Fourth of July fireworks this evening. It’s good to go home, and it’s good to come back again.

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