Madeleine Robins

September 1, 2016

Let me call you… Mister

Filed under: Life,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 8:04 PM
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EtiquetteA friend mentioned the other day that she’d run into a novel set in the mid-19th century in which everyone addressed each other by their first names. All the time. Under every circumstance. It was driving her nuts; her interior historian kept being thrown out of the story. Wouldn’t there have been more formality?  And if the author was fudging this aspect of etiquette, what else was she fudging? Or getting wrong? Or figuring just didn’t matter?

It would drive me nuts too. I’m a very forgiving audience, except when I’m not–I can gloss right over what I believe to be an error in world building, if the story and characters are sufficiently engaging that I just don’t care. But make an error before you’ve got my heart and you’ve lost me.

So: how did people talk to each other in the Olden Days? How did they talk about each other? When did the new informality, if I may call it so, become a Thing? As so often happens when such questions are raised, I turned to Emily Post.



June 7, 2016

A Cautionary Tale or Two

Filed under: Around the House,Life — madeleinerobins @ 6:05 PM
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When my older daughter was about three, we went to the park on a hot Spring afternoon. Usually I did not have her in a stroller, but because we were going to a particular park that was about a quarter-hour walk, and because I knew she would be totally exhausted on the trip back, I opted to put her in the little umbrella stroller (lightweight, easily folded, not one of those SUV-type strollers with trays and cupholders… in terms of parenting paraphernalia I was a minimalist). So I strapped her in, hung the bag of playground toys and juice boxes off a handle, and away we went.

We reached 103rd and Riverside, and I started to cross the Avenue. Julie had, unbeknownst to me, learned a new skill: she could unbuckle the safety strap.  And she did. About 2/3rds of the way across the street she stuck her foot down to scuff her toe on the asphalt, which created just enough of a bump that she fell out of the stroller. We got her back in in about three seconds and proceeded to the corner, where I had every intention of 1) buckling her in and 2) giving her a quick scolding. We both knew she hated the harness; this was a demonstration of why it was useful.

Except that when we got to the other side of the street an elderly man was waiting to scold me. He was tall, rather patrician looking, in a suit and tie on a Saturday. And wherever he was going, it was apparently more important that he miss the light in order to give me a dressing down. What kind of parent doesn’t understand the basics of safety? Did I know what that kind of neglect could cost me? Cost my child? It seemed like this went on for five minutes–I generally find it easier not to engage someone like this–but it was probably 30 seconds before Julie unbuckled her harness, got out of the stroller, and said “You leave my mama alone. She’s a very good mama! She buckled me in and I UNDID IT MYSELF!”

At which point the gentleman, missing the point of Julie’s riposte, asked me if I was going to let my daughter address a stranger–an adult–that way. And I took strength from my child’s example and told him that she was repaying his treatment of me in kind. And the kid hopped back into the stroller and I buckled her back in and when we got to the park I got us both ice cream, and so there.

PS163Then there’s the time when I picked up daughter #2 at kindergarten. Her classroom was at the rear of the building in a trailer (much nicer than it sounds) behind a fence about 200 feet from the sidewalk. All the families were picking up their kindergarteners, so as usual it was a bit of a scrum. Becca’s teacher wanted a word, so I checked–she was hanging upside down on a fence with a friend–and stayed to chat for two minutes, watching the fence off and on to keep tabs on her. Finished the chat, turned back, and Becca was no longer on the fence. A matter of maybe five seconds.

There’s a full-body panic flush that you get (at least I got) when you can’t find your five year old daughter in a crowd. What had happened? She had, with the egocentrism of a five-year-old, assumed that I would follow her out to the street and we would go home, and had got off the fence and marched out to 97th Street before she realized that I was not with her. I had, with the egocentrism of an older person, thought she was where I’d seen her five seconds before. Fortunately, a moment later a parent showed up, a very unhappy Becca in tow: we hugged, we cried, we each explained what had had happened, and each promised to do better in the future. She’s now 20–it must have worked.

We are–especially in this day of insta-news and the 24-hour news cycle and Our Friend Social Media–awfully quick to judge. Especially parents. Why is that kid crying so much? How could you not remember to buckle your child into her stroller? Why doesn’t that child have mittens? Why isn’t she wearing a hat? How could you be so thoughtless? Don’t you know what could happen?

Of course you do. Parenting–especially parenting more than one child–is a calculated balancing act. If I hold this one’s hand on the way home from the grocer then I can’t hold the groceries and the other child’s hand at the same time, so I gamble that I’ve trained the kid well enough that she won’t launch off across the street into traffic. If I stop to tie your shoe, your brother won’t climb on that fence and impale himself. If I look away for a second, my toddler won’t climb over barriers and fences in order to get up close and personal with a gorilla.

Frankly, if I’m going to blame anything in the tragic events of the Cincinnati Zoo, it’s the Disneyfication of nature that leads people to adopt a wandering bison calf, or attempt to pet the meerkats at the Zoo. (This is apparently the same mindset that leads people to step off high places at Disneyland because they believe that somehow gravity works differently there. Go figure.)

I am not going to blame the zoo for taking action. Enough has been written about why the gorilla at the Zoo was shot–they know their business far better than I do, and a happy ending and the toddler and the gorilla singing Kumbaya was vanishingly unlikely. I’m terribly sad about the gorilla’s death, but I see this as a perfect storm of bad news for all of them.

And the people screaming about the parents–particularly the mother, because it’s always the mother who should be aware–just… don’t. All it takes is a second (see above). And even the second after that, when every molecule in your body is on fire with terror for your child, you don’t know what to do. Try to squeeze through a space you’re going to be trapped in to go after your child? Scream loudly enough to rile up the animals? A toddler is a peculiarly mono-focused person: yelling “Tommy, you come back here right now!” is not necessarily going to stop even the most well-behaved child when he’s on a curiosity quest.

Parenting is hard, and scary, and exhausting enough. Most parents are doing the best they can, and most parents, I truly believe, do a pretty good job. We’re all making it up as we go along, trying to not do the things our parents do wrong, trying to keep our tempers and our sanities while making the world as rich and exciting for our kids as we can. And sometimes things happen, not because we’re bad people, badly intentioned, or even stupid, but because the world is damned random. You do all the things you can. Sometimes life gets away from you. God willing it’s not a tragedy.


July 29, 2015

Punching Down

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 9:26 AM
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PunchUpI saw something the other day that made me really angry, in that “what, were you raised in a woodshed or something?” sort of way. Prolonged, self-involved, privileged rudeness makes me on-beyond-cranky. And as I watched this behavior continue I realized that the perpetrator really had no idea of what he was doing.

I was at a cafe, writing (I have said elsewhere that getting out of the house and away from its distractions is a must for me). There were others there, also working diligently, drinking coffee or nibbling on pastries. I work here frequently enough to know the staff by name; it’s a comfortable little joint.

About half an hour after I get there a man comes in and takes a seat. He’s older than some of the customers, younger than me; wearing a suit, carrying a briefcase (the other occupants are more the beanie-jeans-and-backpack sort). He plugs in his laptop and phone and gets to work. Has a couple of phone calls which he carries on a little too loudly, but that happens.

When he ends a call our waitress goes over to see what he’d like to order. She’s a middle-aged Korean woman, deceptively young looking, petite. Her English is fluent but accented, and her voice is soft. When she asks him what he’d like to order he doesn’t look up, just says “Nothing right now.” A look flashes across the waitress’s face: I think she recognizes that he’s going to be trouble. She asks if perhaps he’s waiting for someone. “No, I just don’t want anything right now,” he snaps. She is barely on his radar, an intrusion.  (more…)

December 3, 2014

My Cyber-House

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 9:53 AM
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I have become, in what I hope is the nicest possible way, a bit of a martinet about tone and discourse in my living room.  I love good chewy discussions, but I try, regardless of my level of engagement (or frustration or incomprehension or general bogglement) not to name-call or make generalizations. And if I catch myself slipping, I try to reverse the trend.  Because I really, truly do believe (in part from watching my kids, who are passionately political, but really good listeners) that we’re not going to get anywhere in solving the problems that confront us as a society if all we do is stand on the sidelines lobbing spitballs.  It isn’t that I don’t find myself wanting a meme of Dan Ackroyd from the early days of SNL doing his Weekend Update routine: “Jane, you ignorant slut…”. But I don’t think it helps.

Did I say this is my cyber-living room I’m talking about? My presence on Facebook, my blogs, my Live Journal, etc?  Well, yeah, because I have yet to have a person in my physical space start calling me, or other guests, names.  Face to face most of the people I know well enough to invite inside know better.  On the internet, not so much.

These days, I tend to step in as early as possible, pounding my cane on the floor and calling for civility and no name-calling on my turf.  Just once I had a firefight break out in my cyber-space, and once was more than enough.

A few years ago, I posted enthusiastically on my Live Journal that I was going to a convention I particularly liked, and a friend of mine (since deceased) mentioned wistfully that he didn’t go to that con any more because it didn’t feel “safe”.  He knew that this was a ridiculous thing to say on the face of it: he was a middle-aged, middle-class, straight, white man, successful in his day job and as a writer. But he had also been embroiled, a year or so earlier than that, in the awful mess that was Racefail. The experience had had a lasting, and not happy, impact on him. and now (he was battling cancer and working to keep all his energy for that fight) he felt the convention was “unsafe” in the way that any place would, where old wounds might be opened on either side, at a time when he had no energy to cope with them.

When I left for the convention, there had been a few other comments, mostly from friends saying “Ooh, good, I’ll see you there!”  I didn’t check my email or Live Journal until the next morning, at which point there were something like 70+ responses, most of them in vehement, angry response to my friend’s comment.  And it was awful.  It was as if a friend at a party, overhearing another guest say something stupid, had opened the door to my house and invited all his friends in to set the dumb guy straight, and those friends had hailed other friends, and so on.*

I don’t disagree with some of the opinions expressed, but the tone, and the words used, and the way it escalated, was frightening.  I suspect that if any of those posters had been in my real-world living room, talking with the guy in the chemo cap, and could see his demeanor, they might have expressed the same things, but not in the same way, maybe out of respect for his frailty, maybe out of respect for someone else’s space, and maybe because they could see both more of his intent, and of the impact their words had on him, and on the people around them.

I asked the advice of a friend at the convention, who shook her head and said that the only way she could see to handle it was to shut the conversation down.  So I did.

And these days if someone comes into a discussion on my Facebook feed, or my LJ, or one of my blogs, I make every effort not to shut it down, because I want to hear what people have to say.  But I will remind people to keep the tone civil, not to name call (including not name-calling public figures–that sort of thing can escalate to a fist-fight real fast), and to think before they hit Send. My cyber-house, my cyber-rules.


*thinking of it now, it reminds me of my daughter’s 16th birthday party, which somehow got into the wild on Facebook. Kids showed up who did not know my daughter or anyone else at the party.  I caught a kid tagging the shed in the back yard.  One boy arrived so drunk that he pissed on my kitchen floor.  Stuff was broken.  And yet, when I shut the party down (at my daughter’s request) most of the kids said, as they filed out, “thank you for inviting me. I had a lovely time”.  They were not bad kids; they just didn’t think of themselves as being in a real house tenanted by real people, until I made it so by tossing them out.  (Okay, except for the kid with the spray paint.  Him I kicked out early, with extreme prejudice.)

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