Dangerous Accessories

Beauty can be deceiving. (image: L. Weldon)

Beauty can be deceiving. (Image: L. Weldon)

I’m all about buying handmade things. I like the idea that my money supports people who pursue their passions. It’s a feel-good way to buy lovely gifts and grab some loot for myself. I’ve always been happy with my purchases. That is, until I came across the Scarf From Hell for sale at an urban pop-up craft fair. Its softness was devilishly enticing and it came in all sorts of lush colors, with a hand-written tag noting the yarns were spun from reclaimed silk saris. Definitely my kind of thing. I bought two, one to give as a gift and one for me.

I mailed one scarf to a friend as a birthday present. She got back to me with effusive thanks, no hint that the scarf had yet wreaked havoc in her life.*

I didn’t break out the other one until I was leaving for a weekend conference. As I put on my black wool jacket I thought, in a last minute inspiration, I’d wear my new scarf.

After a few hours of travel time I got to the conference. I talked to a keynote presenter and greeted fellow attendees. I may have registered a few what’s-wrong-with-her glances but attributed them to my own insecurity. Before the first workshop started I dashed off to the restroom. I gasped in horror as the mirror revealed the depths of my scarf’s treachery.

The yarn was deconstructing. Hundreds of tiny, vividly colored bits had pulled away from the scarf and were clinging to my coat like burrs. As I leaned over the sink more yarn confetti fell. These shreds were also in my hair and clinging with static determination to my neck. Picking them off successfully meant grabbing one strand at a time. I did what I could to clean up, then folded my jacket over my arm hoping I’d have time later to de-fuzz it. When I left the bathroom, scarf tucked into my tote bag, I noticed that a trail of yarn detritus marked every step I’d taken. The conference hallway looked like a knitter’s Hansel and Gretel re-enactment.

It was a long weekend. The cold weather meant I couldn’t go without my yarn-spangled jacket. Every time I thought I’d nearly picked it clean I found more lurking under the collar, inside my pockets, clinging in strands to the lining. The yarn invasion was so drastic that fibers were even evident when I blew my nose.

Strangely, I haven’t thrown the scarf out. It still lurks in my yarn-wrecked tote bag. This is fair warning. I may be a pacifist, but if riled I might just pull Scarf From Hell out of hiding as my secret weapon

*My friend insists her scarf is fine. I’m guessing she either suffers from a serious case of politeness or she’s so traumatized by her own Scarf From Hell experience that she’s repressed all memory of it.

The Dread Experience

dreadlocks, old people reactions,

image: pixabay

Kirby, who is now 15, is probably the most serene of my four kids. Completely without guile, he’s not even vain about his beautiful hair. It is dark blonde and wavy, coarse enough to fluff up into a temporary Afro, and so thick that balding men comment on it jealously.

Mostly it is an irritation to him because it grows so quickly. When he was 10 years old he decided he wouldn’t comb it again. He still doesn’t, yet it looks charmingly tousled with nary a tangle.

At his birthday party last year he got rid of his hair. It was quite an event — Kirby in the bathroom, his tall buddies crowding around the mirror, shaver cutting down to the scalp. He left a wide swath of hair all along the top. While this is popularly called a Mohawk, he informed us that members of the Mohawk tribe traditionally did not go about sporting that hairstyle. They actually used a kind of toupee. Only Kirby would bother to learn these details.

He kept the mistakenly-named Mohawk hairstyle only a few days before quickly realizing it wasn’t worth the trouble of shaving and putting on goop to keep the central path of hair standing. He didn’t get much of a reaction. Our liberal friends just gave him a thumbs up or asked if he was into punk music. Our more conservative friends just chuckled with a glad-it’s-not-my-kid look. The only extreme comment came from his grandmother, who asked, “Why do you want to change your personality?” (The assumption that appearance dictates character explains the strictures of my own upbringing.)

This year our musician son has grown taller and his hair, longer and longer.  At some stages his hair looked like yearbook pictures from the 70s, then like a movie poster for Jesus Christ Superstar. Finally it got to the length he deemed right for developing some dreadlocks. Yes, white-boy dreads. Not being blessed with the right hair for them to form naturally, he had to print out 20 pages of instructions he’d researched (some contradictory) and order $36 worth of specialty products including pure bar soap and chunks of beeswax with tea tree oil. He cleans out horse stalls for spending money so this is no minor expenditure.

When the dreading day arrived, Kirby’s girlfriend and I set up for the procedure in a festive mood. He looked pretty serious. We sectioned off his hair using an array of clips and held it back with a tortoise shell headband we called his tiara. I think we teased it enough. His hair that is. His tiara kept slipping and based on the number of times he said ‘ouch’ it was apparent we were hurting his scalp with all the tugging and fussing.  I’m pretty sure we used too much beeswax. By the time we were done he looked the way our dog’s belly does when he’s been outside after the rain, a dangling chandelier of mud.

Kirby was convinced the hair would eventually ‘dread’ around the beeswax spikes. He washed it with his pricey soap and smiled sweetly from under all those hair candles. He laughed when his dad danced around singing reggae tunes with made up lyrics. He adhered to the theory behind his hair research for at least a month.

Still, his hair looked more dreadful than dreadlocked.

We all missed his formerly beautiful hair. The faux dreads looked particularly out of place when, as a bagpiper, he dressed in his kilt to march with his highland band — a serious band made of mostly of formal older gentlemen. Kirby finally got the idea his rebel coiffure wasn’t appreciated when the band’s Scottish Pipe Master warned, in his thick brogue, “We dress as one man, we look as one man.”

So, Kirby decided the dread experiment was over. Being a person who doesn’t go halfway, he didn’t just cut his hair. He shaved it off completely.

His grandmother doesn’t adjust quickly to surprises. She was alarmed when he entered her door at our next visit sporting his new Mr. Clean look. She blurted out what should never be said to a teenaged male, especially by a grandmother, “Kirby, what a boner!”

I couldn’t explain to him right then that the term meant blunder to her generation.

No matter. He smiled at her calmly. His bald head shone.

Throwback post, first published by Errant Parent

Chronically Awkwards Anonymous

chronically awkward, klutz, oops,

Technically it’s not possible for those of us who are chronically awkward to remain anonymous. It’s not something we can easily hide. I know this for a fact.

As a child I had a brief taste of popularity. Then I walked into a giant concrete post.

As a teen my life was changed when I fell headlong into the locker of a boy I had a crush on.

As a young adult I accidentally committed a vast rudeness in reaction to a gentleman’s politeness.

As a working professional I was attacked by rampant vegetation disguised as a salad.

These aren’t the only incidents. Oh no. I’ve finally given up all hope that someday I’ll be naturally graceful or at least gifted with the wisdom to know when to shut up. I try to console myself that living beyond humiliation is a spiritual quest. That doesn’t always work. What does work is knowing there are other chronically awkward people out there who, like me, go forth with the best intentions but somehow manage to mangle language or misunderstand gravity. They are my kinfolk.

I talked with someone recently who also claims chronically awkward status. Jessie is smart, funny, and adorable so I was skeptical. She and I were attending a mutual friend’s birthday party. I’d gotten there early on a steaming hot afternoon to carry chairs out of the house and set up tables. As people arrived I arranged potluck offerings on tables. I was happy to stand around chatting by the time Jessie arrived.

She and I shared a few of our awkward stories. She told me about having to attend a swanky fundraiser where she felt overdressed and out of place. Introduced to her husband’s boss for the first time, she blurted out a political observation that (she recognized immediately) was the opposite of his stance. I laughed too hard in sympathy (another of my awkward traits*). I shared the horrible thing I accidentally said to my neighbor when we first moved here. It’s far too awful to put in print but Jessie kindly laughed too hard in response. Even though I wasn’t convinced she was truly awkward, we chortled about forming an awkwards-only organization.

A tall woman arrived with a beautiful wooden tray of artfully arranged olives and squares of goat cheese, all sprinkled with fresh herbs. Perched on the tray was a tiny olive fork, the sort of thing gentlefolk use to deposit a single olive on their plates. I gestured to the table where she could set down the tray. She offered an olive to me.

Only after I stuck out my hand to seize one did I realize I wasn’t within immediate range of the olive tray. I propelled one foot forward while saying “Oooh, olives,” as if to prove I’m unable to engage in clever repartee.

I should have taken two short steps to be close enough but instead I lurched at her in one giant orangutan-ish* move. At the same time I lifted my arm way up, as short people have to do, in order to grab an olive. The approach of a middle-aged barbarian clearly alarmed her. She quickly lowered the tray in deference to my height and obvious clumsiness just as I reached up with thumb and finger in olive-gripping mode. The force I’d deemed necessary to lift one gleaming brown fruit was too much. My hand hit the tray. At least a dozen olives shot scattered. One lump of goat cheese thwacked wetly on the table next to me.

In my defense, I have an essential tremor that’s much worse after I’ve held anything heavy, so maybe I can blame the olive debacle on my post-chair-carrying hands. Probably not. I think is has more to do with my veeery slow adjustment to the physics on this planet.

From the corner of my eye I noticed that Jessie didn’t know whether to rush over to help pick up olives or pretend she didn’t know me. Aaaaakwaaard. I guess she’s kin to me after all.

awkward, klutz,

*I promise to laugh way too long if you share an awkward story.

*No besmirching of orangutan gracefulness intended.

Stock Photo Bias: Youth Version

bias against kids, child stereotypes,

Search for “kids learning” stock photos. Image: bigstockphoto.com.

Female images typically found in stock photos are airbrushed models posing in starkly stereotypical scenes: sexy domestic, sexy business, and sexy-wearing-a-hardhat. These images have a great deal to say about societal perceptions of women and girls.

That’s why it’s good news that Getty Images is releasing the Lean In Collection. Their library of more than 2,500 images shows women and girls in real and powerful roles.

However, there’s another stock photo bias. Back in 2010 while layout for my book Free Range Learning was being finalized, the editors allowed me to choose the photos that would appear every few pages. I delved into the stock photo world expecting to find a whole range of relevant images, such as kids exploring nature, engaged in make-believe, being silly, spending time with people of all ages, you know, being kids. Because the book’s topic is homeschooling and alternative education, I also wanted to avoid images of young people in instructional settings (indoors or out).

No matter what search terms I tried, I kept coming up with the same limiting choices. Any variation of “learning” produced classroom-type results as well as endless photos of kids facing computer screens. It was extremely difficult to find representations of kids volunteering, doing chores, or engaged in any other purposeful work. It was even more impossible to find kids in mixed age groups (babies to elders) doing anything other than staring right at the camera with the fake merriment that seems to infest stock photos.

And gender bias was blatant. For example, any search term including “boys” showed many more active images than the same search term including “girls.” When I tried to find photos specifically of teenaged girls, the results  were downright alarming. Page after page showed two categories: grimly pensive faces or, more often, coy come-on faces.

Is this how our young people are seen?

Of course, there are many ways to measure limitations and bias. (I’m particularly fond of the way Sociological Images juxtaposes images with analysis.) And there are many filters through which the world is shown us. The filters themselves don’t just affect our perception, they affect the very people they intend to portray. Stock photo images and other portrayals of youth in our culture don’t come close to showing the vibrantly whole lives around us.

As for my efforts, I gave up after several days of bleary-eyed searching. I didn’t pick any stock photos for my book. Instead, I asked people from around the country to contribute pictures of their kids doing all sorts of things. The images are small and low res, but they’re a far more valid representation of today’s young people.