a rant, just in time for the holidays

You want to know one of my pet peeves? The idea that there is a certain type of person who is poor. Because everyone knows that economic status defines who you are, the things you enjoy, the caliber of your intellect. Right?

Kings CanyonI was trailer trash. Those kids running wild in the mobile home park with their dirty feet and their ratty clothes? I was one of them. We weren’t even financially solvent enough to own our own trailer. We rented, and we rented the cheapest trailers we could find, which were somewhat…less than posh. I rocked the louvered windows with the hand-crank. I was accustomed to the entire house moving when someone walked from one room to another. I was dutifully impressed by the weird indoor-golf green that covered the “porch.” I shared a mattress (box springs were a luxury, but sometimes we’d find them behind someone’s dumpster – lucky day!) with various siblings, often sans sheets because hey, who had money for laundry?

And that’s just the nice parts.

You know what else I was? Smart, artistic, talented. I was in the GATE program. I read constantly. I was accepted into the Johns Hopkins Program for Gifted Students when I was ten, after scoring the prerequisite over-1100 on my SATs. Is that incongruous? Because…I was poor, right? That meant I must have had bad grammar and enjoyed brawling and graffiti. And possibly marrying my cousins.

I don’t get how people can be so casually judgmental about the poor. I was part of a conversation recently in which a woman was talking about how dirty – physically covered in dirt – the kids were at an elementary school out in the sticks, and the other person (I am being intentionally vague) replied “That sort of thing comes from the home. They must have learned it from their parents.”

Okay, what? I’m sorry, do you honestly believe that the parents of impoverished children actually teach their offspring to be dirty? Or are you suggesting that the parents are just too lazy to teach their children to wash?

Because, when I was a poor kid (and I am aware that my situation was much, much better than some) there were times – months, sometimes – when we couldn’t afford propane, and that meant no stove (we cooked everything with an electric frying pan), no heat, no hot water. Bathing in cold water? Not a hell of a lot of fun, especially in winter. Did I wear my hair in a ponytail for the better part of seventh grade so that no one could tell I hadn’t washed it? Yes, yes I did. Did it work? Uh…

When our clothes were dirty, it wasn’t because we were ignorant of the inner workings of the laundromat or too busy watching daytime TV to wash them. It was because we could either have clean clothes or eat that week, and I’ve got to tell you, eating won out pretty much every time.

Don’t get me wrong. There were plenty of stupid, ignorant, horrible people who perpetuated the poor-people stereotype. But you know what? There are plenty of stupid, ignorant, horrible people who make a decent living. Money (or lack of it) doesn’t dictate how intelligent or free from prejudice you are.

And yeah, we were on welfare. You know what welfare gets you? Not a hell of a lot. As a family of four (three kids plus a father) we got around $200 in food stamps a month, plus a few hundred dollars for rent and utilities. The food stamps? Always gone in the first two weeks. Always. The money? Gone even faster.

Kids are expensive. Food is expensive. Gas is expensive. It didn’t matter how we economized or what we spent the money on – sometimes you’ve got to feed your kids meat so that they get enough protein, and if there’s a baby in the family, you needed diapers. Or shoes. Or coats. We bought our clothes at thrift stores and counted our pennies at the store, but – look. Take my word for it. It wasn’t enough.

We always had to supplement our income by setting up a stand at the flea market and selling cameras my father had refurbished, which meant we were always looking over our shoulders because the welfare department? Does not allow supplemental income. And then sometimes the cameras wouldn’t sell, and we’d be out of food or unable to pay our rent, and my dad would have us call his mother (who he refused to speak to) and beg for money, and…it sucked. And we still ended up without propane, or eating nothing but bread for a few days, or having to pack our stuff in the middle of the night and move.

It sucked, but it’s not like we were doing it on purpose. It’s not like we had a choice. We weren’t stupid, and we weren’t lazy, and we weren’t bad people. We were just poor. I’m not a better person now because I can afford to pay my rent and wear nice clothes. I’m just luckier.


10-Minute Writers: I remember…

Oh, crazedparent, you don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into! I’ve jumped on the 10-Minute Writer’s bandwagon with this exercise in memory. (For da rules, check out this post on crazedparent’s blog.)

I remember watching Sesame Street as a kid and thinking it was just the most magical thing ever. To me, it felt real – the puppets, the characters, all the people. I wanted to live on Sesame Street.

Back when I was little, there was no Elmo, no Prairie Dawn. Snuffy was Big Bird’s imaginary friend, and no one but Big Bird could see him. And, perhaps most importantly, the theme song was not all techno-fied. What is up with the updating of the theme song? It was fine the way it was!

I think that’s the crux of it. I want my childhood memories (the few good ones, anyway) to remain intact and immutable. I want to be able to show my kid exactly how my memories looked, how they felt, what they sounded like. I don’t want to have to explain, uselessly, that all this newfangled “hip” puppeteering was absent from the original Sesame Street, and that cookies aren’t “sometimes” foods, they’re ALL THE COOKIE MONSTER EVER EATS. Because he is the cookie monster. THE COOKIE MONSTER. Follow along, people.

I remember how much I loved the Cookie Monster, and Oscar the Grouch (so cranky!), and Grover, and the Count. They’re all side-notes now, the minor characters who aren’t as compelling to baby eyes as Elmo or…Elmo, and can I just take a moment to say that Elmo’s laugh is like THE CACKLING OF HARPIES? Oh, if I had a fork with some sharpened tines…but that is neither here nor there. The point is, Burt and Ernie are supposed to be The Odd Couple, not the sterile dorm-buddies they are now, and at some point the one-two-three-FOUR-FIVE-six-seven-eight-nine-ten-eleven-twelve song is supposed to play, because it’s my favorite, and I always looked forward to it. Still do.

Some of the spots are still there. The weird floating stop-motion guy with the big letter cutouts? I totally rememeber that. The oddly-animated number sequences? So freaking cool. The badly-dressed playground children? I was so one of them.

The thing I remember most, though, is listening to the theme song and trying to figure out which direction all those kids were going. If I could have figured that out, I’d have it made.

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slugs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails

When I was first pregnant with Happy Fun Baby, I knew I was going to have a boy. I knew it. All my dreams were of a little boy, the stupid necklace trick said “boy” – how can anyone argue with such solid evidence?

Several TV hours of Gilmore Girls later, I found myself longing for a girl. I know girls. I get girls. Boys? A baffling collection of hair and muscles and testosterone. I started dreaming about baby girls, little girls, daughters. My list of potential girl’s names started to balloon. I loved the idea of having a girl: nothing against boys, you understand, but a girl made sense to me, having been a girl myself.

Naturally, every armchair psychologist in the house is raising their hand at this point and going “Oooh, me, me!” As a little girl, what had I wanted more than anything? A mother who was, you know, reliably present. Parents who liked each other. Stability. What could be more satisfying than writing over my crappy girlhood by Doing It Better Myself? Little known fact: you do win a prize if your kids still like you when they’re grown. Look it up!

Given all that, the ultrasound in which my child’s gender was unmistakably revealed (wow – that sure is a boy, all right! Either that or he’s got an extra limb!) was somewhat disappointing, and the thing I found most disappointing? The clothes. Boy’s clothes are somewhat unthrilling. My dreams of a tomboyish daughter in stripey knee socks and boots took their reluctant place in my Maybe Later file, and I started thinking about how on earth I was going to raise a son.

Happy Fun Baby answered that question for me the moment he was born. He looked straight at us with his huge, calm eyes and I knew, instantly, that he belonged to us. Not in a sense of ownership, but in the “Oh, of course” sense you get when you solve a problem that seems complicated but turns out to be deceptively simple. Of course this was my baby. Of course.

The best thing a parent can do is give a child the opportunity to be the best they can be. Maybe it’s easier when your child is already so obviously himself. He knows what he likes and what he does not. He’s fiercely independent and just as fiercely attached to us. To me – he thinks I’m just the greatest thing ever, which is weird and cool and satisfying and terrifying all at the same time. Which I think goes to the heart of the Gilmore Girls dilemma – can I live up to being the mother of a boy? Can I do this without screwing it up?

I’m not disappointed anymore that we don’t have a daughter. I can’t imagine anything more perfect than my dancing, raspberry-blowing, meat-eating, singing kid.

Happy first birthday, Monkey.

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