A couple of days ago, Twitter was buzzing with tweets about banned
books. I read Nathan Bransford’s post about “where is the line between
parental discretion and censorship?” and I agree with some commenters
that it should be parents who help kids decide what reading material
is appropriate. Removing books from the shelves because someone is
afraid her kid will happen upon a racy book — where racy is defined
by someone who may not have the same values as I do — prevents me from reading that book. Please don’t prevent me from reading stuff.
Parental discretion, when it comes to reading material and life
experiences, is obviously important. But I struggle with how much
sheltering is too much sheltering. For example, a couple of years
back, I was reading one of the Little House books aloud to my kids. At some point, the Ingalls’ dog was swept away by a raging river and presumed dead. I wanted to protect my kids from this devastating loss, so I skipped that part. Imagine my horror when the dog came back. My kids wondered why everyone was so happy to see him, when in their experience, he had never disappeared. I admitted that I’d skipped the dog’s drowning and they asked me not to skip things.
I was similarly concerned when I heard about a sad ending to one of
the Harry Potter books. My husband had been reading the series to my
daughter since she was in kindergarten and I knew she was attached to
the characters. I strongly advised my husband to figure out some way
to avoid reading that book. Distract her with another series. Buy her
a pony. But he read the book. And while my daughter was sad, she
didn’t have nearly the meltdown I’d expected. They talked about the
loss and moved on to the next book.
Now that both my kids are reading — and if I may brag, both have the
reading ability of kids three to five years older than they are — I’m
put in a position to balance reading level with material. That is, my
daughter can read at a ninth-grade level, but she’s certainly not
mature enough, as a 10-year-old, to read books written for high
schoolers. Luckily, since my kids can’t drive, their visits to the
library are supervised. They aren’t in a position to obtain grossly
inappropriate books — yet. But as a teenager, I found ways to get my
hands on that stuff and I’m sure you did, too. What then? A bridge I’m
not looking forward to crossing. I hope to cross it, however, without
the help of book-banning zealots.
Someone said to me, “You aren’t as important as you think you are.” She said it matter-of-factly. I was crushed until I realized she was advising me to ignore my imaginary audience. You know, that group of people who spend their days criticizing your wardrobe, noticing your mistakes, and discussing your terrible writing behind your back?
Everyone has an imaginary audience, but for those of us born with self-consciousness issues or who suffer from delusions of grandeur, the audience causes a lot of unnecessary stress. We make decisions based on what we imagine the audience is saying about us. We spend a little too much time worrying that the audience knows we wore these jeans yesterday. Most importantly, we stifle some of our creativity; we don’t take chances because (we think) the audience is watching our every move.
Ninety percent of the time, though, no one cares that you wore those jeans yesterday. They don’t remember that blog post where you misspelled “grandeur” and inappropriately used a semi-colon. They seriously aren’t meeting after class to discuss your train wreck of a manuscript.
They have their own imaginary audiences to worry about. You’re just not that important to them. Thank god.
In 2007, I went to China. Other than visits across the bridge to Canada — which do not count — the China trip was my first international experience. When I returned, after 9 days or so, I was fairly open about my response to China, or at least to my host city, Nanjing: unfavorable. I freely groaned when describing the air quality, the smell of certain streets (other streets were spotless — most of them, actually), the lack of air conditioning in the office building where we were stationed, the people who gawked at my circus-freak appearance.
I didn’t like China.
After a few months of owning this truth, I woke up to people’s reactions and realized that it is unfashionable to feel this way. It’s cool to enjoy China. It’s unenlightened not to enjoy China. Because I couldn’t get the many variations of duck meat past my gag reflex, I’m considered a closed-minded Midwesterner. I’m hopelessly American because I had assumed I’d be able to find a bag of potato chips and maybe a box of Cheerios in China (I could not). (And when you see cheese pizza on the room service menu of your “Westernized” hotel, lower your expectations.)
I’m a people pleaser, so in retrospect I kind of wish that I had not been so honest. When people gushed, “How was China?”, I should’ve said, “Amazing!” No harm in that. Instead of cringing when someone asked me if I’d like to go back someday, I might’ve exclaimed, “In a minute!” When anyone inquired about the food, I could’ve said, “Delicious!” But I didn’t. Because it wasn’t. And if you hear one of my colleagues say it was, she’s just trying to seem enlightened.
As a technical writer, I have a lot of anxiety about releasing documentation with errors. Sometimes I lie awake and wonder if I should have had another person review the godforsaken diagram I’ve been toiling with for two months. The diagram chases me through my dreams. (And I have reason to believe that I haven’t seen the last of that bastard.)
This weekend, I read Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. The book is about Krakauer’s disastrous expedition to the top of Everest during which an unusually large number of people died. At the beginning of the story, the author laments that when he returned from the trip — badly shaken, of course — he had to get right to work pounding out the contracted 17,000-word article detailing the tragic adventure for Outside magazine, who paid for the trip. Under the wire, he bungled some facts and made a major error that he says caused a lot of pain to the family of one of the deceased.
Now let’s discuss what’s worse: falsely representing the events surrounding the death a person who perished on Mount Everest during the deadliest season on the mountain vs. incorrectly labeling an arrow on a diagram in a software manual that 27 people might read.
Perspective. I have some now.
Someone just told me, “There are two kinds of motorcyclists: those who have been in an accident and those who will be.”
When I saw my husband — let’s call him Oscar — walking down the side of the road this morning, holding his motorcycle helmet, the first thing I thought was, “Oh, god. Those were his last pair of good jeans.” The denim was shredded and his bloody knee hung out. Upon further inspection, I saw that his wallet was poking through his torn back pocket and there was an oddly placed rip behind his uninjured knee. “What are you going to wear to work? Those are your only pants without holes in them.” Just an hour earlier, I’d begged him to go to Old Navy before someone at the office mistook him for homeless.
Oscar, however, was unconcerned about the jeans. His attention was on his motorcycle, which was being lashed to a tow truck with cables and canvas straps. We stood there as the truck pulled away with the scuffed and broken bike on top and I surprised myself by starting to tear up. It was a heartbreaking moment, knowing Oscar’s relationship with his motorcycle would not be the same after today.
I never want to see that thing again, yet I know I’ll be sad to open the garage door tonight and see the empty parking spot.