“Ten years ago, as we all know, ‘everything’ changed. And then some things changed back.”–Henrik Hertzberg
“In the end, J.K. Rowling may have outwritten us all.” –Laurie Moore.
My memories of 9/11 are mostly fragments. I was still pretty young–two days from turning 16–and that’s part of it, but part of it is also that they must be fragments. It is too hard to hold together a coherent picture of the day, from beginning to end.
I remember having a dream the night before that something horrid had happened. I remember going to school the next day. I remember Norman, our principal, calling us into the Big Room and saying, with a catch in his voice and an expression I’d never seen on his face–he was normally quite calm–telling us what had happened. I remember his voice as he said he was thinking about all those people. I remember Anne, the math teacher, one of the gentlest women I will ever have the pleasure to know, saying that it had to be Osama bin Laden. I was, as I said, not quite sixteen, and I was totally unaware of the world around me: I’d been as angry as any other teenage burgeoning progressive wannabe when Bush was “elected” and I’d happily tell you that the GOP was made up of morons, but of the larger world I knew inexcusably little. Or perhaps not inexcusably: perhaps my excuse is merely that I never had to, I could live in my own little world, spill my own little dramas. I did not know what was going on in Iraq, Afganistan–I’m not sure I would even have recognized the names. I was concerned with my own private hell–I was not as desperate and depressed and self-destructive at sixteen as I would be at seventeen, but I was getting there–and I could not see outside myself. Even after 9/11, it would take several years before I learned to look around me, to open my eyes and see the rest of the world. For many years I lived as a ghost might, flitting between home and school, lost in books.
And so I had no idea who bin Laden was. I did not understand what was happening. I did not know what the World Trade Center was. When Dylan asked if this was a terrorist attack and Norman said well yes, it looks that way, I had little concept of what a terrorist attack even is. It would take me a long time to even begin to understand that.
A couple of years ago, I was walking some kids home. At the time, I think that S and N were in 1st grade and C was in kindergarten. As we walked, S told me that they’d learned about 9/11.
Oh? I said.
He was solemn, serious. People were–they flew the planes. Into buildings.
I could hear the wonder in his voice, the utter astonishment. We don’t raise our kids to understand that things like this can happen in the world. And that is not a bad thing. But it makes it much harder to explain, then, at the moment when suddenly you have to.
The kids asked me what had happened. Who were these bad guys who flew planes, and did they mean to fly them into the buildings, or was it an accident? If it was an accident, they could understand it well enough: accidents happen. Milk is spilled, crayons are dropped, sometimes grown-ups say or do things they do not mean. But they couldn’t fathom someone flying a plane into a building to kill people on purpose. And I’m glad, of course, that they cannot.
Do you remember all the “well now we are a better country?” crap? I do. And it turned out to be a grand lie. We are not a better country. We are just as fragmented as we were before 9/11. Probably more so. Oh, there were a few nice moments of national unity, and then we went right back to fighting about butt sex. We do not have a sense, still, of what is right and what is wrong. And I am part of that, of course. I have less than no tolerance for Tea Partiers and racists and insert blank here. I just don’t. And I am not convinced that I should: while I think it is important to be tolerant of ideas, being tolerant of behavior that actively oppresses someone else is another thing entirely.
Hmm. That doesn’t really help clarify matters, does it?
This morning I watched the video footage. I don’t think I’d ever seen it before: that day I was not glued to the television. I could not stand to watch. I have avoided it ever since, but I think that it is important, too, to bear witness. So I watched. And I reacted exactly as you’d think: I gasped, I stifled a sob, I gasped again. I cannot imagine (and I have a fairly fertile imagination) the terror of actually seeing that. I really cannot. And I cannot imagine being a newscaster and suddenly seeing that plane fly into the second tower–how did I miss that video? I’ve never seen it, not that I can remember. If I have, I’ve forgotten, or I very carefully did not notice in the first place. Anyway, I cannot imagine suddenly realizing that this was, in fact, not an accident.
I don’t (as is surely obvious by now) have any sort of unifying theme or comforting conclusion to offer here. I remember what it was like. I mourn for the people who died. I remember how stunning and strange it was to have heroes, actual heroes, among us. I remember how my views on what the nation was like were altered, completely and totally, on one day. I remember how scary it was, to realize that we were not in fact invincible, that on the most beautiful of days the world can suddenly turn to ash.
This morning I happened to be supervising a couple of kids. One was 6, one 4. The 6 year old turned to me suddenly.
Osama bin Laden is dead now, she said.
He is, I agreed.
My mom said he was the boss of all the bad guys.
Your mom is right. He was the boss of all the bad guys.
The 4 year old looked up. How did he die?
Well, the girl said, he killed himself. I think with a bow and arrow. Or a gun.
I said, that’s what you think, huh?
The girl said, let’s build the Pentagon.
They built a tower out of the wooden blocks. The girl got the little plastic helicopter. Let’s fly this into the Pentagon, she said.
They flew the helicopter into the Pentagon. What happens now, I asked.
Everybody got dead, she said matter-of-factly.
So the Wall Street Journal has published a really irresponsible article attacking young adult literature. I’m not even going to link to it, that’s how absurd the article/editorial is. It’s basic claim is that YA books are too intense and have too much trauma. Apparently, books discussing self-harm will spread the idea; books including “foul” language are somehow bad for kids; violence is obviously a no no, and etc. To which I say: balderdash. Or, to use a non YA safe term, bullfuckingshit.
The piece makes the assumption that teenagers only experience trauma through books. This is patently absurd. And even for teens who are basically happy, healthy and well adjusted, there is still trauma. Being a teenager is hard. It can be really, really hard, or it can be somewhat less hard, but it is always hard. Reading helps teens much as it helps children: it articulates things they cannot yet put into words. Hell, books do the same thing for adults.
Are their YA books I hate? Sure. I cannot stand Twilight: I think it’s abstinence porn message is anti feminist and, unexamined, dangerous for young women. Are there books for teens–just as there are books for adults–that are tawdry and cheap? Of course. But I don’t buy the argument that books normalize behavior: I doubt that anyone who reads a book about self-harm suddenly think it is okay. Now, descriptive scenes about anything can be triggering, sure. But that’s no reason not to write them.
Books save. YA books hit kids at exactly the right moment, and they can really save. A great deal of my worldview comes from books, and especially YA books. To claim that books are bad and censorship is good is patently absurd. There are books I wouldn’t give to a second grader, for sure, but by the time they are high schoolers kids have learned enough to know what they can and cannot handle. We don’t trust children nearly enough: we feel that they can handle the pressures of insane school schedules or sports or whatever, but that they cannot handle READING about trauma.
Also, why are we even talking about this now? Surely Flowers in the Attic was more fucked up than anything teens read today.
You’re skating on thin ice, young man.
Don’t make me come down there.
You do not want me to have to turn off that hose.
Dude, stop hitting your brother.
No, really, stop hitting him.
I mean it. Stop already with the hitting.
Dude! You can’t go hit one brother because he hit your other brother. That’s just absurd.
So do you want a bedtime story, or are you going to read The New Yorker?
Be honest now. Are you just reading it for the cartoons? Nothing wrong with that, half the people who get the New Yorker only read it for the cartoons.
I’m not in charge of your bedtime. Take it up with your parents.
Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.
Well when I met Jim five minutes ago, I told him, “Move over! I’m a righty. And don’t let me follow a preacher.” Thanks for nothing, Jim. When Seth Meyers from Saturday Night Live and I hosted this awards show in 2008, I remember thinking it would be really nice if we were to make this list together. And tonight, I am happy to say that it is just as sweet making the list without him. I have so much influence; I am lousy with influence. I am what you call a connector. Bruno Mars is not here, but if he was, he would meet Aziz Ansari tonight, because I would introduce them. Chris Colfer, have you ever met Martha Stewart? Because I can I make that happen. Jonathan Franzen and Patti Smith are sitting at the same table. I know that because I’m on the list. If you shook my hand tonight, you might not want to drive home because you may be pulled over for a DUI. [Editor’s note: This was her recycling a joke she’d used on us earlier in the evening … Still delightful!] But tonight, I’m genuinely very humbled and honored to be part of this evening, so I would like to take my remaining minute to um … I have thought very hard and long about what has influenced me over the past couple of years, and since I have been at this dinner in 2008, I have given birth to two boys and I’ve left Saturday Night Live and I started my own TV show, and it’s been a crazy couple of years, and I thought who besides Madam Secretary Clinton and Lorne Michaels have influenced me? And it was the women who helped me take care of my children. It is Jackie Johnson from Trinidad and it is Dawa Chodon from Tibet, who come to my house and help me raise my children. And for you working women who are out there tonight who get to do what you get to do because there are wonderful people who help you at home, I would like to take a moment to thank those people, some of whom are watching their children right now, while you’re at this event. Those are people who love your children as much as you do, and who inspire them and influence them and on behalf of every sister and mother and person who stands in your kitchen and helps you love your child, I say thank you and I celebrate you tonight.
Yesterday, on Christmas Eve, I went to Toys R Us with my sisters–one of them wanted to find things to put in a snow globe she’s making.
It was really quite disturbing.
Obviously, there’s the really dreadful consumer aspect of Toys R Us (I never go there because there’s a great indie toy store-Child’s Play-very close to me and if I need to get kid gifts that’s where I go). Every conceivable thing has been licensed/tied in/etc. Note the toy food is McDonalds, there are Twilight lunch boxes, WWF action figures, Barbie and Disney Princess everything–shopping carts, play cars, vanity tables, etc.
The gendered aspect is, if anything, worse. Toys R Us is the most gendered store I’ve ever seen. It’s even worse than Target. You will see in the pics that there are often girl and boy versions of the same toy right next to each other, often featuring characters–for example, there’s a Disney Princess television next to a Cars television (who buys their child a television featuring characters?) There is a pink Cadillac and a black Cadillac, pink Rollerblade and black Rollerblade, pink bank and blue bank, pink Duplos and primary color Duplos.
But worst of all is the message these toys send. Virtually all of the boys toys involve competence, courage, strength and bravery–action figures of military, “everyday heroes,” wrestlers, superheroes. Not surprisingly, vehicles play a large role in boys toys, with tons of trucks and cars with names such as Mutator and WildFire. The names are interesting here–“Hero Factory,” “Khung Zoo Ninja Warriors,” “Rough Riders,” “Crime 8,” and “Battle 5 Force.” The only cuddly toy, aside from some blue dogs, that I saw for boys was a soft hamster–called a Battle Hamster. The only female action figure I saw had both arms cut off. Meanwhile, girls toys focus on caregiving, submission and responsibility: lots and lots of dolls, often with names or themes such as “Little Mommy,” “Baby Alive,” “Snuggle Kins,” “Caring Corner,” and “The Princess and Me.” There’s a lot of messaging about how worth is valued by service to others and acceptance of stereotypical feminine traits: an apron reads “express your talent” and features Disney Princesses, and there are multiple pink baking sets. Rather than action figures, girls have disturbingly wide-eyed Little Pet Shop or Polly Pocket or Barbie girls, all of whom are shockingly sexualized. The focus is largely on caregiving and often on taking care of babies, specifically: there are dolls that wet, dolls that cry, dolls with their own cribs. There are also housekeeping supplies, such as a pink Princess vacuum, and there is a pink vanity table. Virtually all playsets include a component of caregiving, from My Little Pony to the Littlest Pet Shop to the Happy Family Doll House to Loving Family. Those latter 2 point to a disturbing “everyone must be happy” trend which is augmented by a baby supply company called Summer: The Best Time of Your Life. Mothers who find infants exhausting and prefer their kids older? You’re wrong.
Even babies don’t escape. Onesies for girls say “pretty” and are pink. Onesies for boys have cars, say “beep” and are blue. There are gendered baby bathtubs and gendered (and character laden) toddler potty seats. There’s Elmo, Disney Princess, and Toy Story shampoo. There are toddler beds covered in Princess and Cars spreads. There are Thomas the Tank Engine toy chests. There are pink bead mazes.
The store was packed–not surprising–and kids were melting down and overwhelmed: entirely too much stimuli. We do children a great disservice by exposing them to this sort of consumerist gendered crap. Since we know that children learn through play, it seems evident that limiting their play by telling boys and girls what is and is not okay to play with can only have negative consequences. I heard one set of parents teasing their young son, telling him they’d buy him “girl toys” while he protested–laughing and cringing at the same time. Heartbreaking.
So check out these photographs, and see what we’ve done to our children whenever we take them into a toy store.
This afternoon I was riding my bike and came across C.E., 6, who like most of the kids I used to babysit for I hadn’t really seen in ages. I said hello, she said hello, I rode off.
When I got home I had a call from C.E.’s mom. Apparently she missed me and was now sobbing that she wanted to see me.
This warmed the very cockles of my heart, I tell you.
I went over to her house, hugged her, held her, read to her, colored with her. We had a great time. I miss her too.
I haven’t done much babysitting lately, which is why it was so lovely to babysit tonight for brothers I’ve known mostly since they were born, and to see how grown up they are, the 12 year old paying the pizza guy, the 10 year old telling me about how the commercial for “Saw” was scary (“some people like being scared but I don’t”). And the 7 year old was just the same, wanting to wrestle and sword fight and read. And it was just…nice, the rythem of it. I miss that, being with kids all the time. I need to look for some more babysitting gigs.
Although I did spend a lot of time saying “don’t hit your brother.” and had the following exchange:
10 year old: “my friend C told me this funny story about Family Guy but it has a word and I think it might be a bad word but I don’t know what it means…don’t get mad at me if I say it” (this is not verbatim, but more or less!)
me: “OK. the only way to find out what words mean is to say them.”
10 y.o.: “he said the statue of liberty’s pimp.
7 y.o.: “what’s a pimp?”
10 y.o.: “never mind.”
me: “it’s like a man…”
7 y.o.: “is it like a pimple?”
10 y.o.: “yea let’s say that!”
me: “let’s go see if the pizza is here!”