Let the Old Traditions Fail

RedskinsVirginia, my home state, has celebrated Lee-Jackson Day every January since 1904. State and city offices close; Confederate flags unfurl. After 110 years, this seems unlikely to change. In fact, in 1983, when Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, became a federal holiday, Virginia appended the Civil Rights leader to its traditional Heroes of the Confederacy observance.

I kid you not: the third Monday in January was officially Lee-Jackson-King Day. State and city offices closed; Confederate flags unfurled.

From Virginia I went to Dartmouth College, official motto:  Vox Clamantis in Deserto (“The Voice of One Crying Out in the Wilderness”). Unofficial motto: “Lest the Old Traditions Fail.” Dartmouth’s illustrious history included excluding women, elaborately hazing fraternity pledges, and nicknaming its sports teams “the Indians.”

My own home team was the Jews, whose time-honored customs include snipping off the foreskin of newborn males.

The argument in defense of much of the above-mentioned behavior was (and is) “tradition.” But of course just because someone did it before you doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good thing to do. Tradition is not an excuse in itself. It has as much moral weight as “well, they did it.”

A tradition is just something that’s been passed on to you, like a chain letter. And like the senders of chain letters, institutions and cultures threaten dire consequences if you don’t pass their traditions along and promise good fortune if you do. (If I don’t circumcise my child, he can never really be Jewish! If I puke my way into this frat, my “brothers” will one day get me a job!)

I hate chain letters. If you’re wondering who broke your recipe chain, it was I. It was I who failed to forward that email telling ten women in my life how important they are. I used to feel torn about it, as if I were letting people down when I tossed the letter out. The older I get the more I want whatever comes from me either to come from me or to be something I would be perfectly proud to have thought of.

That’s the thing about tradition: if it’s coming through you, it’s coming from you. Even if you’re just going along unwillingly or uncertainly, as I did when we had Noah circumcised, it’s still coming from you. You can pretend you are merely the conduit —or even the victim—but you are actually the one perpetuating it.

Of course, that’s no big deal when you are perpetuating the eating of nachos to celebrate the end of school or the wearing of white at a wedding. When the tradition is frivolous. But when the tradition you pass along is harmful or suspect or offensive, you should be able to defend it with reasoning beyond “well, they did it.” You should be able to defend it as if you had just thought of it. “You know what we should do with our baby’s penis?” . . .  “Hey, I’ve got an awesome name for our team: The Redskins. Huh, guys? Isn’t that great?”

If you can’t defend a behavior as your own, you shouldn’t behave that way.  The institution that insists you do will not wither as a result of your refusal—or maybe it will, and should. More likely, it will suffer the dire consequence of . . . evolving.

In 2000, Virginia unshackled MLK Day from the day commemorating Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee (which is now the Friday before). In Lexington, where both Confederate leaders are buried, there is still a parade, a ball, and plenty of Confederate flags on Lee-Jackson Day. But, since a court decision in 2011, no Confederate flags have flown from city poles. And this June, Washington and Lee University moved the Confederate flags from Lee Chapel—where the college has many of its official events—to the Museum below ground. The Sons of Confederate Veterans organized protest rallies, but the college seems to be standing firm.

Dartmouth College began admitting women in 1972 (there were protest rallies, but the college seems to be standing firm). By the time I got there in the late 80s, the Indian symbol was officially banned,[1] but still visible. Now, as with the Confederate flag, you can still display it, but its stated meaning has been overshadowed by its subtext: “I’m OK with your thinking I’m an asshole.” That’s progress, in my book.

And believe it or not, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, a fraternity whose disgusting pledge hazing traditions were detailed in a 2012 exposé in Rolling Stone, changed its policies this past March. According to the Supreme Council, there are officially no more SAE pledges—no underlings, in other words, who can be forced by their “brothers” to chug milk and vinegar until they throw up.

We’re still working on the Redskins. But I’m happy to report that some Jews are making progress on the foreskin front. Israel’s High Court just ruled that the Rabbinical Court couldn’t force a mother (who is opposed to circumcision, divorcing a father who favors it) to circumcise her infant. Dire consequences may befall her yet. But good fortune has already come to her son: he has a strong mother to defend him against the vagaries of tradition. Her refusal to perpetuate behavior she doesn’t condone is the best thing she could possibly pass along.

 

 

 

[1] The school’s nickname is now The Big Green, which is supposed to represent its picturesque central yard, but I’m so hoping someone will eventually show up at football games dressed as a dollar bill (OK, you’re right: a one hundred-dollar bill).

 

Facing Summer Vacation, 2003

My son Noah is down the road at the horse farm unloading hay with his dad and two hired hands in their early twenties. At thirteen, Noah doesn’t have quite the heft or height of Caleb and Grant, but he tosses a hay bale smoothly and  hoists himself into the barn with the same loping confidence in his muscled body.  And yet, only a few minutes ago, he was the little boy in this essay about summer vacation . . . In some ways my summers are easier now than they were when I wrote this essay: I don’t have to entertain Noah, Jesse (in the dining room, layering his own backup vocals with a loop pedal) , or Lena (away on one of her many sleepovers). When they were little, with Adam farming, I had to parent full-time in the summer. No breaks, no options. Now I have more freedom, which means I am torn. I have work, I have my own writing, and I have a gnawing awareness that summers are brief and childhood is too. I should shut down my laptop for a while and go be with them. That’s why you’re getting an old essay today, and why I’ll be posting every two weeks during the summer instead of every week. I’m still trying to learn the lesson I meant to learn 11 years ago.

 ♦ ♦ ♦

Noah, age 2 1/2, ready for his first summer vacation.

Noah, age 2 1/2, dying for his first summer vacation.

This is my first summer on the dark side. The side that looks on the long days of July and August not as an endless stack of books next to a beach blanket, but as just plain endless. The words “summer vacation” used to make me shiver with anticipation; now they make me sweat with dread.

This is my first summer, in short, as the parent of a school-age child.

That child, faced with the first summer vacation of his life, is by contrast bouncy as a Beach Boy. I know I shouldn’t be surprised by this, but I am. Noah went to school a mere two mornings a week this year; Noah is only two and a half years old. He’s too young to open his own sandwich bag, but he’s stoked that school’s out. He’s so young, he has no idea what day it is—in fact, he has no idea what a day is. But he kept asking me, “Is this my last class, mommy, is this my last class?”

It’s true Noah went to school chiefly for his parents’ convenience, and also so that he might learn to share, to listen to his teachers, and to follow a schedule. But since the schedule in question went something like Free Play, Snack, Songs, Art, Playground, Lunch, Free Play with Bigger Toys, we assumed school would be as fun for him as it was useful for us.

We were wrong. “Is this my last class, mommy?”

“Is this my last class?”

Two weeks ago, I finally said “yes.” And I wondered, should a person feel so gloriously freed because he no longer has to finger paint and sing songs on Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 9:30 to 1? This is a person for whom “hitting the books” is a literal rather than figurative expression, a person for whom “cramming” refers to an effort to get his entire body into the cabinet in the plastic play kitchen. Why in the world is he so desperate for a vacation?

No matter how attractive school might be, the simple fact is he’d rather be home with us, rescuing trains from the predicaments into which he placed them, making me  play-dough cookies, climbing on his dad, burying his toes in his sandbox. Doing his thing. No matter how pleasant his class schedule, he didn’t choose it.

That’s my problem, too, I suppose. After all, should a person feel so terribly oppressed by two more mornings a week of hitching various toy vehicles to various other toy vehicles and searching in vain for a child whose legs are plainly sticking out from under a throw pillow? When it comes right down to it, that’s what I’m dreading: seven more hours a week of playing.

Noah is only two and a half. He doesn’t realize that one day his class schedule will be more like Geometry, U.S. History, PE, Lunch, English, Biology, French. (Or, if he goes to Worst-Case Scenario High: Complex Concepts While Half Asleep, Fascinating Topic Rendered Boring, Total Physical Humiliation, Unbearable Social Stress, and so on through 7th period: Legs and Butt Going Numb.)

He doesn’t know he should therefore savor an educational experience so focused on fun they call it “Rompers.” All he knows is he doesn’t want to get dressed and go to class.

But I’m older. I’m so old I dread summer vacation. So I know, and I should be able to keep in mind, that soon Noah will be busy with his own life and I will actually miss having to snatch his hat and run so he can chase me and put me in jail under the maple tree.

Sometimes at night when Noah—read to, watered, tucked in, rewatered—is still trying to deny bedtime, he throws a little pajama-clad arm around my neck and says, “Mommy, snuggle with me! All right? Just for a few minutes.” He’s got a baby’s high voice but an adult’s inflection; the way he says, “Just for a few minutes,” not whining, but with an air of reassurance, is hard to resist.

I resist. “No, honey,” I say, “it’s time for sleep. Here’s Teddy. I love you.” I kiss him and I leave, absolutely certain that one day, when Noah regards a goodnight kiss as an invasion of his personal space, I’m going to regret my hasty retreat. But I am desperate to read the newspaper. Or worse: Thumb through a catalog. Watch a Law and Order rerun.

I want what I want when I want it. What I need to learn is to want what I’ve got when I have it.

I’m pretty sure that class is on my summer schedule.

Adventure Saturdays & Other Traditions

nachosYears ago I instituted a family tradition called Adventure Saturdays. Every Saturday during the summer, the kids and I had to do something new: go to a new park or museum, try a new watersport or pool, and so on. When I was in a particularly orthodox mood, we couldn’t even stop along the way at their favorite diner—we had to find a new place and order something new.

Adventure Saturdays ran counter to the kids’ natural tendency to watch Finding Nemo for the zillionth time and eat chicken nuggets at every opportunity. They love to do exactly what they’ve done before; they resist what they haven’t. But I felt it was my job to make them try all sorts of things, if only to turn modern art and kayaking and Ethiopian food into things they’d done before.

In other words, I was determined make my kids’ future comfort zone as large as possible by pushing them out of their current one as often as possible. Not an easy job. Adventure Saturdays helped, because by requiring me to do it one day a week, they also allowed me not to do it on all the other days.

And, although the point was to break us out of routine, Adventure Saturdays paradoxically were themselves a routine, and therefore an easier sell to kids. “No, sorry, remember—it’s Adventure Saturday. We’ll go to the pool tomorrow. Today we’re going to Thomson’s Lake. Don’t make that face.” And then we went.

Kind of like going to church or lighting the Sabbath candles. If it’s just what you do as a family then your kids go along. Of course religions are particularly good at those routines (daily prayer, weekly service, annual holidays); it’s one of the reasons they’ve persisted beyond the need to explain thunder. But establishing your own family traditions is surprisingly easy, since the child’s natural craving for comfort and familiarity works in your favor.

Working against you is the fact that without co-religionists, without the culture-wide consensus that, say, church is just what you do on Sundays, it’s on you to keep your tradition going.

We don’t do Adventure Saturdays anymore. It’s on me. The kids got better at entertaining themselves, I got busier with work, and the weeks started going by so fast that I stopped wanting to do anything on a Saturday morning but drink my coffee and read backed-up issues of . . . everything. First the New Yorker and now even my bimonthly cooking magazines seem to come every day.

I haven’t dropped all family traditions. In fact, I recently emailed the mom of one of Lena’s friends to apologize for what I was about to feed her child:

fair warning: per tradition we are having a School’s Out dinner of french fries and nachos.        

Note the use of capital letters to reinforce the official nature of the meal and the word “tradition” to elevate fried potatoes and melted cheese into matters of great import. (Melted cheese definitely helps a tradition stick. It’s no coincidence that our one incontrovertible family holiday is International Pizza Day.)

I’m pretty sure I can keep School’s Out going; annual, I can handle. But I do kind of miss weekly. And I think the kids might too. Not long ago, Noah, organizing a Saturday morning meet-up at the park with some friends, turned to me brightly and said, “This is a good tradition.” He had done it before precisely once.

He yearns for routine, I guess. He also knows a good rhetorical tool when he hears one. To get to the park, he needs a ride; to get a ride, he needs to convince his mom to drive across town on a Saturday morning when, as we’ve established, she would rather be reading Fine Cooking. He’s using the word “tradition” to turn what he wants into a matter of great import.

Clever boy. Now he just needs to give it a name with capitals. And add cheese.

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