Since we moved here to NOLA, I'm on constant alert for cockroaches. No, I'm never going to call them "palmetto bugs" - that's far too pretty a name, dreamed up by genteel Southerners, for something that strikes such fear and loathing in my cold, Yankee heart. Every time I see anything small or dark on the floor or catch a movement from the corner of my eye, my blood turns to ice and I can't breathe for a second. And with the exception of our first day moving in, I've seen a lot of pieces of leaves, Cheddar Bunnies, and bobby pins, but no impending plague.
My husband writes, at least some of the time, on the topic of priming and framing effects in his philosophical work - the things that set you up to view an event in a certain way or come to one decision rather than another simply due to the saliency of certain features or characteristics. I used to talk about this sort of thing with my high school students, too: a literary theory is a lens through which to view a story, a frame of reference that sharpens the details within it and blurs away whatever doesn't fit inside. Everyone told me the bugs down here were nightmarish. I'm already terrified of bugs. So I'm primed to scream and hit the ceiling any time I see a glimpse of anything strange on the carpet, whether it's a bug or not.
The other day just after a brief afternoon rain, I was rushing to get the girls into the car to race to the grocery store for dinner ingredients, something I should have been already cooking five minutes ago. They were dragging their feet and I wasn't even looking at them when I told them to hurry up, already. Finally, I turned back and saw the delay for what it really was: not a purposeful attempt to thwart my grocery trip, but a moment of excitement and joy that I was ignoring. "Come see, come see," they had been saying, though I hadn't heard them. "You almost missed it."
Our girly trio has been in a rough patch for some time because, due to the stress of our move and the nature of life with a toddler and a preschooler who are still learning the ropes of being human, we're often primed to see and think the worst of each other. "Don't be mad," Lorelei says to me several times a day (parroted, of course, by her adoring and highly imitative younger sister), even if what I've just said to her wasn't in an angry or frustrated tone at all. I assume any disobedience is an act of defiance, meant to push my buttons in all the right (wrong) ways. Lorelei flies into a rage if we so much as suggest that what she's doing - or, more often, about to do - is somehow against the rules of safety or propriety. Phoebe is stuck firmly in a stage of relishing the negative attention she gets for acting out, and certain routines and every day activities send her into epic tantrums simply out of habit.
I'm primed, too, whether from personality or habit of my own, to focus on all of the ugly. On the fights every day at lunch. On the screaming fits at bedtime. On the meltdowns in the museum gift shop (why, why, why must we always exit through the gauntlet of brightly colored stuffed toys and packages of candy when the kids are tired and hungry and in need of naps?). On the whining and the contrariness and the ungrateful shrugs and the daily declarations of "You're not nice, Mommy."
But have you noticed how these become inescapable? How the more my kids tell me not to be mad, the more mad I get? What about the students starting school this fall who, when previous teachers see their names on a fellow educator's roster, get immediately flagged as difficult, trouble, bad seeds? What about cops conditioned to see themselves as combat soldiers or teens to view all authority figures as evil and corrupt? I already know how this story ends, we say. I've read it before. We don't bother to crack the binding to even pretend like we're invested in finding out for ourselves. And we live up, or down, to those expectations because how could we not, when we're told so definitively who we are over and over again?
I'm tired of the sass talk and the tantrums and the general ugliness. But I'm trying, the only way I know how, to revise the narrative: to help them change their stories by changing my own. "Think of three good things that happened today before you go to sleep," my mom always said to me on nights when I wanted to wallow in my frustrations. I want to think of three, thirty, three hundred good things about those girls: the times when they follow a snail down the sidewalk, happy and curious and excited together. And then maybe those palmetto bugs lurking in the corner will fade into the background. Or maybe - just maybe - they weren't even there to begin with.