Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Participant Observation

Participant Observation
Stacey Greenberg

I get most inspired when I am being held down on a bed by my nipples with no pen in sight. Pardon the pun, but nursing really gets my juices flowing. I often lay in the dark with baby Jiro at my breast, ideas spinning in my skull, and the computer staring at me from the corner. If I get a really good idea, I try to repeat it over and over and over again in the hopes that I can remember it long enough to write it down. What would Satchel do all day if left to his own devices…What would Satchel do all day if left to his own devices… I’m in a constant state of production—formulating ideas, writing them down, typing them up, putting them together in my zine, and looking for other places to publish them.

I rarely go directly from good idea to computer. I need to jot down ideas and let them have a “time out.” I keep a little Japanese notebook in my purse, but just recording the thoughts can be a massive undertaking. Over the Christmas holidays I had ten days off with my children and sick husband. Essay ideas were popping into my head every few minutes—I could hardly keep up. Trying to hold a thought between changing diapers, carrying on a conversation with a toddler, and dolling out medicine was tough. I would get halfway to my purse and not even be able to remember why I had come into the room in the first place. I found myself using the aforementioned repetition method to get from one room to the next without losing the idea.

As is often the case, the ideas followed me out the door. When I went on food or medicine runs, I furiously made notes at red lights. Once I got home, I was scribbling away in the driveway when I heard my cell phone ring. “Um, are you coming in?” my husband inquired. “You’ve been out there for thirty minutes.”
If for some reason I am separated from my notebook, I jot notes on my hand. Recalling a scene from Toy Story 2 in which Buzz Lightyear reminds Woody to look at the name “Andy” on his boot, my two-year-old usually wants a piece of the action. “Put letters on me!” he says.

Speaking of my two-year-old, I don’t think I’d have much to write about if it weren’t for him. Now that Satchel is talking, I am constantly stealing his material. When he looks out the window and says, “It’s darking.” I think How can I work that into an essay? Maybe a cartoon would be better…and start sketching it out in my head. Watching him navigate the world, or even just the playground, makes me long for thirty minutes with my computer. The day that he took a bagel from a homeless guy was both frightening and thrilling—after determining that he hadn’t been poisoned, I ran home and cranked out one of my best essays yet.

I am also guilty of using my children for experimental purposes. Satchel’s favorite pair of shoes happen to be red and sparkly and from the girl’s department. My husband was mortified when I bought them, fearing that Satchel would get teased if he wore them in public, but I was secretly hoping for an essay on defying gender roles. You know, in addition to just making him happy.

Some ideas are not content to be recorded in the notebook. In their outside voices, they holler at me from the pages, demanding to be shaped into an essay. When this happens I use the fact that my littlest sleeps next to the computer to my advantage. I can close the door under the guise of getting him to sleep and peck away (uninterrupted) at the keyboard long after he has dozed off. If that doesn’t work, I try and get to the office a little early and start writing before the ideas have a full-blown temper tantrum. Other ideas are happy to entertain themselves in my notebook. They sit quietly until I find myself bored on a Friday afternoon looking for something to do…Maybe I should write about my husband’s love affair with Jon Stewart now.

Once I get something coherent on my screen, I find that I need instant feedback, just like my toddler does. “Don’t say uh-huh mama! Say…” Thanks to the Internet, this is usually possible. Depending on the content, I will either post it immediately in my live journal, on a message board, and/or in an email to a fellow writer. In my undergrad writing workshops I relished hearing my classmates’ reactions to my stories. After college, I was content to narrate my adventures to friends over drinks, easily eliciting laughter and praise. I don’t have a lot of people sitting around telling me what a great mom I am, so publishing an essay on my mothering is a way to get validation. I certainly don’t publish every piece I write. Oftentimes I am content to get a few comments from online friends saying, “I can relate.” If don’t get immediate feedback, I feel even more like a toddler. Why isn’t Maggiesmama saying anything? Look at me! Look at me!

I started my zine as a much needed creative outlet. It not only guarantees that I’ll have at least one place to publish my own writing, it gives me a reason to talk to other mamas on the playground, in the grocery store, or in cyberspace. It takes commiserating about sleepless nights and discipline issues to the next level. That’s really remarkable, why don’t you turn that into an essay? I often say. I find this process of getting others involved in my creative endeavors immensely satisfying. It certainly makes playgroups more interesting. When I had Jiro, my playgroup could be more accurately described as a mama writers group since we sat around pitching essay ideas while our babies nursed and read rough drafts as we bounced our children on our hips, trying in vain to keep the paper out of reach. I think it ties into the whole “It takes a village” thing.

If I didn’t have 44 pages to fill every three months, I don’t know if I would have ended up with such a great group of talented mamas at my fingertips. When I get a break at work, I send out emails to make sure my regular contributors have my next issue in mind or I scan my friends’ blogs and online journals to see if anyone has some interesting raw material. I’m not afraid to give out assignments, beg, or stalk my friends if necessary. Longtime readers and newly pregnant friends also provide a constant stream of interesting work. Occasionally I will reprint essays and cartoons from other mama zines that I have read. Because I am dealing with women who could easily have writing careers if they had the time or desire, the submissions I get are almost always print-ready, requiring very little editing on my part. When editing is necessary, the pre-existing personal relationships I have with most of the contributors makes it easy for me to offer constructive criticism. My role as editor is most strongly played out in the gathering and ordering of submissions.

By the time I get ready to drop the zine off at Kinko’s—usually on a lunch break—I feel sick to my stomach. The person behind the counter sees a stack of papers. I see three months of breastmilk, sweat, and tears. (My first issue was completely cut-and-pasted, almost like a scrapbook. Now that I have discovered my husband’s Photoshop talents and access to his office’s scanner, the zine really is just a stack of papers. If I can get my nerve up, I have been told by high-ranking Kinko’s officials that I can just bring in a disk next time.) Once I pick up the finished product—a really big box of neatly ordered white paper and a small box of fancy, expensive cover paper—the nausea subsides, and I feel a great sense of pride in having pulled it all together once again.

The zine has become a family affair. It has given my husband and me something to collaborate on other than what to make for dinner or where to go on the weekend. He is an incredible artist who wouldn’t make time to draw anything if I didn’t continuously prod him to do my covers. This prodding involves a lot of brown-nosing (You are so talented! I love that idea!), deal-making (I’ll make dinner! I’ll give the kids a bath!), sulking (I thought I’d be at Kinko’s by now.), nagging (Why are you watching the news? Don’t you have something else to do?), and in extreme cases, the offering of sexual favors (Wink. Wink.). Satchel has started assisting me with the stapling. Let me do it! Let me do it! Jiro goes to sleep early so I can stay up late affixing mailing labels and stamps.

This constant state of production has added a reflective element to my parenting that might not otherwise be there, or at least easily forgotten. Recording my thoughts and feelings, the experiences of my children, and gathering the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of other parents and their children allows me to both be in the moment and outside of the moment. In my anthropology classes we called it participant observation—participating and observing at the same time. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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