Contemplating the Shitty Valentine

Last week I was sitting down at the kitchen table with my 4-year-old son, who was making out his valentines. I'd written his classmates' names on the envelopes, and he was signing individual cards. I picked an envelope up. "This one's gonna be for Axel,*" I said (*names changed to protect the obnoxious).

"But why, Mama?" he asked. "He's a bad boy and he hits the other kids."

I'm told we don't say that kids are bad anymore. The kids we referred to as "bad" when I was young are now "behaving inappropriately" or "making bad choices." I can dig it.

"Axel's not a bad boy," I said. "He doesn't listen and sometimes he does things that aren't nice, but we're still going to give him a valentine." It felt a little weird coming out of my mouth, like if I'd said to my own son, "you kick me daily and haven't eaten your dinner in weeks, but I still made you a giant cookie."

My son obliged without pushback, and I watched as he folded a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles card into the envelope, slid the mini Leonardo eraser in, and sealed it up with red 3 heart stickers, clumsily placed.

Young Axel got a valentine identical to that of all the other kids.

This incident came up the following day when my co-worker told me of a similar experience she'd had with her own 5-year-old son the night before. She said one child in her son's class is mean to all his classmates and always disobeys the teacher. She discovered her son had made this rotten-acting kid what she referred to as "a shitty valentine"--no frills (other kids got the glitter treatment), sloppy and crooked handwriting.

She was upset when she saw the card and made her son do it over again, nicely this time. Equally.

In talking about it, I started to question the wisdom in our decisions to shove this equality down our children's throats.

First, I wondered about the message I was sending my son by asking him to accept that Axel hits kids at random and distracts the class from the teacher to the point of nausea (I've been there; I've seen), to ignore whatever feelings he has in reaction to that, and to make Axel a valentine that sent the same message he was sending the sweet little girl that gives him big, squishy bear hugs when she sees him. Same message he sent to his teacher, who is kind to him and teaches him valuable lessons and is endeared by and supportive of him.

But...I understand why we do these things. I understand that, as parents, we are highly sensitive to the idea of our own child causing another child pain. We picture the look that would flash across our own son's face at the realization that he'd been left out. Deliberately ignored. Intentionally shunned. We can't bear the thought that something our own child would do could leave another kid feeling that way.

And it seems too big a conversation to have with a pre-kindergartner.

I had a friend who'd studied the hell out of philosophy and conversation with whom challenged a lot of my preconceived and internalized-through-awareness-of-societal-wide-acceptance-of-them notions. One of these was the idea of unconditional love. "All love--except maybe the love of a parent to a child--is conditional," he said. And rightfully, necessarily so, he added.

After some consideration, I agreed. What would my love for my friends or honies mean if it remained static, regardless of what they did or didn't do, regardless of how they treated me and others?

I contemplated this thought and pictured myself saying "ok yes, my man murdered my favorite family member, but I've declared my love for him, and love--after all--is unconditional." That's an extreme example, of course, but the example needn't be. The idea remains the same: Love should NOT be unconditional. Yes, love accepts another's faults and forgives a lot of fuck-ups. It gives the benefit of the doubt and sees the best in and begins anew, again and again. But what a person does matters. What a person does or doesn't do, again and again and again, over time? It matters.

What age is the right age to begin imparting that message? If my son, at age 9, gave a valentine to a mean child who'd issued him a beating the day before, wouldn't I be concerned?

Perhaps, in the 4-year-old's era of Valentine's Day parties attended by parents, each child taking turns passing out the booty to each other semi-circled child, it *would* be a tad blatant--the omission of one among them. As my boyfriend (who's been all through this with his now-12-year-old son) pointed out, there comes an age when the kids only give cards to the kids they like and nobody even flinches; preschool is not it.

But I think there is a healthy middle ground to be found for the time being.

I think that if my son had done what my co-worker's son did and I gave it a few more moments of thought before reacting on auto-drive, I might let him go with the shitty valentine. The shitty valentine says, "Yes, I'm going to include you because to exclude you would be rude and unkind, but this is pretty much how I feel in response to your treatment of me and my friends." Just, you know, in a 4-year-old way.

*Frienemy valentine shown for illustrative purposes only; do not send your child to school with this ;)

I think this approach honors the idea that even a small child can and should respect his feelings and react to others in a way that is genuine, rather than obligatory. As my father-in-law-ish put it when I brought the topic up with him: A valentine should mean something.

The shitty valentine means, "You can do better, buddy." Maybe the message is even a little better received when it comes from a peer. It illustrates the law of actions/consequences that teachers strive so much to drive home. If it's possible...just a *little* bit possible that the endless equality practice of recent decades has contributed to the Millennial all-entitled-all-the-time phenomenon (as so many old schoolers have suggested), perhaps this valentine practice needs a little overhaul.

Even if, for now, the children are required by unspoken law (and maybe even for the best) to distribute their declarations of (something related to) love to every child in the class, I will begin the conversation with my child. I want him to know that he is not obligated to like people who treat him badly. He doesn't have to ignore what his intuitive senses are telling him about right and wrong and how what a person puts out into the world comes back to him or her.

I can't help but think that this conversational seed planted now, in the ultra-tender soil of his preschooler heart, may serve him well in the years to come.

Kevin's Sketch

Part 3...

Ernst Haeckel. I just finished reading The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought, a book which details the life of this amazing 19thcentury biologist and artist.  Ernst was the first to coin terms like ‘ecology’ and ‘phylogeny’ and in any discussion of art and science, his name invariably comes up, as he was one of the first to approach nature from both lines of inquiry.  Pictured are some of the critters he spent a lot of time with, the iconic jellyfish, above them, the radiolarians and hanging over his head are the three infamous sandal stage embryos (dog, chicken and a turtle—see how similar they are?!).



What I've Learned About Love, So Far

I didn't set out to write a blog post about love in honor of Valentine's Day. I started this post weeks ago and had a very early draft waiting in the wings. But why not post it this week? Why not join in, pay homage to, play along with: love? What else on earth could we all be clawing so fiercely through this life to find and hold?

What...if not love?

It is not within me to make declarations about what love should be, what it needs to look like--a grand, sweeping guideline. But it's been on my mind to share some things about what I've learned about love, for me. One thing I've never wanted to do in life is to simply go and go and go and go and get to the end and think, 'hmm, okay, done now.' I want to grow along the way. I want to have thoughts like, 'well that sucked...never gonna do things like that again' or 'yes! THIS I could use more of in my life.'

My take on this could always change, of course. Hopefully I will learn much more along the way, too. But these are some thoughts on the subject of (romantic) love, for the here and now:

Love is wanting to hear another person's stories. It's archiving them and referencing them later. From Kevin I've learned that it's also adopting your loved one's family's nicknames for her and calling her by them. It's relishing the childhood version of your loved one, wanting to know all about it. It's never passing up a chance to meet somebody who knew your honey back in the day, just so you can ask what he or she was like back then.

Love is conspiring together.

Somebody said "love means never having to say you're sorry." What a load of horseshit! Love strives to make things right, to atone, to get good with. Sometimes, "I'm sorry" is definitely in order. Love is also taking responsibility for one's part in the messed-up things and owning one's own feelings.

From the Bible (there's some really good stuff in there): Love is, indeed, patient and kind. Love can wait all damned day. It can wait many days. It says kind words and means them. It pains at having caused its object pain. It is careful to be gentle, when gentleness is what will avoid causing unnecessary pain.

Love does not find every quirk endearing, but love absolutely gathers all the quirks in closely and says, "ok guys, it won't always be easy or pretty, but we're gonna learn to live together."

From my in-laws of sorts (including Catfish Moore, who did the above illustration--thank you, Catfish!), I have learned that love is worth getting right, even if it comes a little later in life...that true love at any age can make you giggly and sparkly-eyed.

In love, the time spent in joy far exceeds that spent in pain, sadness, tears, confusion, or doubt (about one's self or the relationship). There is always the potential for pain and sadness when a person opens her heart, but love does not leave room for these to be the prevailing emotions for long.

Love continues to find its object fascinating. Love is endless curiosity.

Some have said that you treat your loved ones the worst, because you can. I disagree. I think that maybe you let your loved ones see the worst of you at times because you trust them. But you treat them better than anybody in the world, because they deserve it and because that's how you show that love is not once-granted and then taken for granted. Love esteems and holds in high regard, even when the going is rough. 

From my parents, among so many other things about love, I've learned that it laughs often, with and at. It knows that teasing is a way to show your loved one that you see him, goofy parts and all, and that you love him through them all.

Love tells the truth--respectfully, tactfully, lovingly.

Love wants to build upon itself; it wants to create; it longs to combine forces and make something that extends beyond itself (this need not necessarily be children).

Love does not want to keep its objects' virtues to itself, hidden from the world. Love is not threatened by outsiders. Love wants others to see and know and appreciate. Love says: that's my man (look how juicy he is!); I'm so proud to be by his side.


In contemplating this topic, I put the question out to some friends, because it's always interesting for me to know how other people process the thing I'm currently chewing on. Here are some of their responses:

I've learned that a healthy sex life that doesn't involve a relationship and surrounding yourself with friends and family who care/love you is way better than ever settling for an untrue love. ~Nessa
The love between a parent and child (no matter their ages) is unlike anything easily explained. Inspiring, transcending and truly holy. And before I became a parent myself, I had no idea. ~Colleen
Love is a DIY project. I think I've learned that you create it yourself. I mean, it's all a state of mind (and heart), and since it's YOUR mind and heart, YOU create, or you distance yourself from love. I think love also has a million facets, and none of them ever ever ever matches the movies. EVER. So if anyone thinks their life IN LOVE will somehow meet their expectations based on Hollywood's nonsense, that isn't going to happen. Just my first take on it. ~Chris
Love is a verb. It is an action. You commit to it and have to work at it. The deepest love goes far beyond butterflies in your stomach or any FEELING at all. It is who you choose to be and what you choose to give. It is the greatest gift I've ever received and the hardest, most rewarding one I've ever given. ~Cait
Love is what you make it. ~Jed
Self love is the hardest but worth it! ~Christina
That after 10 years of marriage, I still don't know much about love. I do know it is work, and good marriages, with both people growing and evolving, are going to have it's dips and peeks. It is all exciting, it's all an adventure, and I know I've found love, because there is no other person I would want to be on that ride with. ~Nicole
Love = Respect + Trust + Adoration, in that order. Without the first 2 - there's no point to the last. ~Joseph
Love is unconditional ~Aunt Edie 
Love is being able to edit as you go (I'm changing, stuff's changing). Love is being able to crumble, barf, poop my pants. My loving friend wouldn't necessarily clean it up, but she will sit with me with my poopy pants. ~Kim 
And there it is! Love is creating and sexing and respecting and poopy pants. All those things and so many more things, to so many people.

Whatever love is to you, if you're reading this--whatever you long for and whatever love you wish to find, I wish it for you as well. I hope you find love that inspires you and draws you in. I hope you find love that appreciates you and hugs you warm and close.

And I hope you have the presence of mind of recognize it when it's arrived. I hope that for ALL of us, that we may celebrate it, spread it around, and always show our gratitude.

Happy belated Valentine's Day, y'all.

Kevin's Sketch

Jellyfish Whispers. Ernst Haeckel is probably the only human being to ever take the time to listen to jellyfish.  I wonder what they told him.


Semi-Anonymous State

Today at work, I sat down with a young Mexican couple who'd brought their 5-year-old son with them; they were looking to open a checking account. The couple spoke no English, and we sat for some time going over the I.D. requirements for opening an account. When we'd figured out what acceptable forms the husband had on his person, I asked if it would be a joint account. The wife said she had one I.D. but was unable to produce any of the secondary I.D.s required.

It was an impasse. It would be a sole owner account.

I was struck by this predicament. I looked at this woman, this Mother. For that brief moment I wondered who she was and how she got here and who she'd been back in Mexico, before circumstances beckoned her here. I looked at her and I wanted to tell her: I see you. I know you're somebody, even if you can't prove it in ways that are acceptable for the purposes at hand.

Jesus Christ, it's amazing to me the things I can sometimes take for granted: the illusion of legitimacy that having a checking account in your name can lend.

I wondered what it was like, to live in a perpetual state of semi-anonymity.


I've never tried to live in a country other than my own. I've never had cause to produce hard-to-come-by paperwork or the need to take drastic measures to live somewhere else, legally. I can't claim to know what that feels like.

But I've known enough people in this scenario that I can see the diminished quality of life that can result. I had an undocumented friend who asked me many questions about the likelihood of INS presence on the Amtrak before crossing the state border to visit a friend in Arizona. What to me was an easy excursion was, for my friend, a giant gamble--a nerve-wracking journey. I taught an adult ESL student who was unable to travel home to Mexico during his time here and who was about to see his parents for the first time in nearly twenty years. I know people who go out of their way to avoid seeing their parents; for this student of mine, it was a dream coming true.

The fallout need not be so dramatic: imagine the inconvenience of being unable to open a simple checking account. Imagine how that would impact your daily life...how many seemingly minor, everyday things would remain just out of reach.

A number of months ago, I helped a man who was depositing money into somebody else's account. When I asked for the customer's last name--the customer whose account he was depositing into--the man stared blankly at me. He hadn't a clue. I asked if he knew the customer. He said the customer was an employee at his restaurant. An employee, but a person virtually unknown to him.

I was reminded of dozens of men and women I'd worked with in restaurants over the years (the majority of the Spanish I speak was learned in conversation during downtime in a kitchen somewhere, me rolling silverware while a co-worker washed dishes or chopped cilantro, swept the tile floor or stuffed rellenos or samosas or butchered up some goat meat, teaching me Spanish by telling me about his or her life--the REAL life s/he left behind for the work life they found here. Many of them, if here long enough, eventually found a livable version of life here as well). I wonder how many of their employers knew their last names, hell their first names.

I know this is a very controversial issue. There are many, many people in this country who do not believe undocumented immigrants have any place in this country and would prefer they be made to leave, be prevented from coming in the first place. In some cases, I can sympathize with their reasoning and mindset, given their respective life experiences and cultural values.

But here is what is not lost on me: I did not earn the right to live in this country. I do believe this is a special place with special opportunities. But I am not special. I am not chosen. I just happened to be born on this side of an imaginary line the runs, imaginarily, across a piece of land. And this happenstance has made my life a whole lot easier than it might have been if I'd been born elsewhere. 'm not saying people born in this country automatically have lives that are easy to live. But I'm saying basic things like food and employment are much more accessible here than in some other places.

Most people don't risk their lives to get OUT of this country, in order to provide for themselves and their families.

And if I'd been born in Mexico, for example--if any of those people who want to crack down on illegal immigration had been born in Mexico, I think it highly likely we would consider heading north. We'd have heard the success stories. We'd know a few people who'd taken that leap and were now able to send money home. Our undocumented, illegal status in another country would feel like less of a crime than an obstacle, the end goal being a more comfortable life, a better education for our children, the right to WORK.

I can't possibly judge that.

Kevin's Sketch

Ernst Haeckel. I just finished reading The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought, a book which details the life of this amazing 19th century biologist and artist.  Ernst was the first to coin terms like ‘ecology’ and ‘phylogeny’ and in any discussion of art and science, his name invariably comes up, as he was one of the first to approach nature from both lines of inquiry.