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In the Still of the Night

I wrote this seven years ago. It’s on my mind again this week, as Allegra has left for ten days in Europe on a school trip. Every time I walk past her bedroom, my heart clutches. It’s dark in there. She’s not on her bed, listening to music. Her whiteboards of to-do lists are static. There are no carefully placed piles of clothes on the floor, one for each day that week.

It’s dark in there.
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Bedroom Border

It was 2:10 a.m.

As is often the case, I was up late. The day had been particularly fun, for — thanks to my aunt, who holds a yearly “Camp Grandma” at their lake home — we were kid free. My husband and I had ventured out that afternoon for coffee and pie, after which we enjoyed the rare experience of sitting in a movie theater. Later, we brought home Greek food and sat on the deck, eating gyros and spanikopita and drinking beers. To close out the day, we had a cuddle on the couch and watched The Colbert Report. At one point, we looked directly at each other. Two times during conversation, we completed full sentences.

During that day, we lived the fantasy of a long stretch of together time, just my husband and me, free of the clamor and interruptions of life with children. Since we were married only 4 ½ months before Allegra came along (so precocious was she — *cough cough* — that she only needed to gestate for 18 weeks!), during Camp Grandma we deliberately play out some of the time we didn’t have together before the onset of The Kid Years.

Beyond just wanting to get to know my husband (suspicion: I might like him), there is also the fact that, generally, getting my own self through a day is as much as I can handle. Adding small people into the mix shoves me to a place of overload where I’m chronically late, sometimes snappish, and frequently found holding Clue Junior, soccer cleats, and a dozen eggs, a look of befuddlement on my face. Indeed, I am the parent who waves jubilantly when her kids to go away for a while, allowing her the space and time to be prone, turn some pages, and fluff her hair. In the best possible way, time with my husband feels like being alone. With him, I can eat gyros and still manage to fluff my hair, and it doesn’t feel at all taxing.

So there I was during those days of Camp Grandma, relaxed and pipping and blissed out.

Then, at 2:10 a.m., after hours of reading Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn and being completely absorbed in a young emigrant woman’s feelings of loneliness in a new city, I finally stood up to honor my bladder’s kvetching.

As I stumbled through the hallway to the bathroom, my glance fell to the left, through the open door to the kids’ room, and suddenly, the rich contentment of that day fell away, leaving behind an unexpected ache.

That room. Usually a brightly-lit, tumbled, tousled visual cacophony of colors and textures, it startled me with its dark quietness. Empty. No shuffles, no classroom of Animal School laid out across the floor, no chatter, no thumps, no singing.

Frozen, I felt the emptiness more than saw it; without the kids in it, their room is a place of lapsed energy, a place without its people. Frozen, I felt the future more than the present; without the kids in it, that room will become an echo of previous times. Even after Allegra and Paco move out and launch themselves into active negotiation with the world, that room will always be the setting of so much of their everything. I will never walk into that room and not feel the impulse to give goodnight kisses, to pick up a slinky, to help find a glue stick. They will move on, but I’m not sure how my heart will.

Standing there in the hall, the wrench of anguish was startling.

A sliver of my heart shaved off and dropped onto the hardwood.

It’s one thing for me to feel exhausted and overwhelmed — to want the kids gone and then savor the vacation when it happens. Knowing they will be back shortly imbues the temporary quiet with liberation and celebration.

It will be quite another thing for them to be gone, permanently, of their own volition — because the world holds more for them than I do. Knowing they will be gone for the rest of their lives, with occasional popping-in over the holidays, creates in my crusty little heart an unexpected hollowness.

There will come a day when, instead of their following my every movement around the house, I will be the one tripping at their heels, wanting to carry their suitcases, make their favorite dinners, hear about their new friends. They will hold the power as I offer an adoration that seeks confirmation.

Fighting through melancholy there in the hall that night, I caught a whiff of my fifties, a decade when my kids will become adults, when I could end up spending many a 2:10 a.m. standing in the hallway outside empty rooms.

May I not be pathetic, as I offer to wipe their bottoms when they come home from college. May I not be pathetic, as I hold out Clue Junior and a slinky to them over the Thanksgiving turkey. May I not be pathetic, as I sleep in their empty beds at night, clutching a stuffed monkey to my chest. May I not be pathetic, as I try to carve my way into the edges of their new lives.

Standing in a darkened hallway in the middle of the night, clutching at my bladder, dabbing tears from my cheeks as I realized my children will leave me one day…

I was — just possibly — a little bit pathetic.

Briskly, I wiped my eyes, threw back my shoulders

and swept up the shard of my heart from the dusty floor.

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Preschool Pom Poms

Out of the cacophony of Facebook, good things can emerge. Tips, recommendations, friendships, support, connections, networking — all of these have come to me through Facebook. But my favorite Facebook moments happen when a thinking person uses the platform for storytelling. My friend Ellen is a master at maximizing the Facebook space for sharing vignettes and insights from her days. As someone who teaches yoga to children, she has endless material and inspiration. Below is one of her stories.

Every time I read her posts, I get to love her more.
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Today in preschool yoga we played “The Popcorn Game.” It basically involves me putting pom pom “kernels” in a pot, pretending to “pop” them, and then throwing them all over the room for the kids to pick up and put back in the pot.

Let me tell you, it is a thrill. Seriously. Most requested activity by far in every age group. The sentence I hear most frequently in class? “Are we playing the popcorn game today?” Some kids even peek in my bags, and yell out, to cheers, “SHE BROUGHT THE POM POMS!!” (Best $2.69 I ever spent!)

When I play it with big kids, they have to pick up the pom poms with their toes, no hands allowed.

But for preschoolers, it’s enough to run around without smashing into one another, to organize their bodies to gather the little fuzzies and get them back to the pot.

Today I took out the pot and the pom poms to the usual cheers.

Except for one little boy I’ll call Charlie. Charlie was sad and worried, remembering that last time, he “didn’t get any popcorn.”

It’s true. But it’s not because the other kids were grabby or hyper competitive. It’s because Charlie’s nervous system was so mesmerized, so overwhelmed by the mere visual WOW of seeing pink and green pom poms all over the room, all he could do was stand in the middle of the room, grinning with every muscle north of his toes. He. Was. In. Heaven.

Until all the popcorn was cleaned up and he hadn’t gotten a single pom pom. And then tears.

So today we had a pep talk before class. I walked everyone through the steps. Find a pom pom. Bend down. Pick up a pom pom. Bring it back to the pot. Repeat.

Charlie was still very worried. You could see the worry on his face and also in his sadly clenching and unclenching hands and toes.

The pom poms flew, and Charlie’s joy took over for a few seconds, dancing him up and off his mat and into the game. There he stood, pointing at the other kids, telling me in a very sad voice, “They are getting all the pom poms!”

“Charlie, sweetie!” I encouraged him. “Look down! There are pom poms right there, next to your feet! Get them!”

But his focus was on the other kids and on his lack of pom poms, and he had no extra brainspace to coordinate the next step.

“They have lots of pom poms, and I don’t have any.”

“Charlie! Bend your legs! Bend down! Touch the ground! THERE ARE LOTS OF POM POMS RIGHT THERE BY YOUR TOES!!” I coached him, in as gentle and patient a tone as I could muster.

Meanwhile, well-meaning, cheerful kids were closing in on his ankles, and…..GONE! Pom poms were all back in the pot.

Tears.

So we tried again.

And again.

And on the third try, with some help from me levitating a handful of pom poms halfway to Charlie’s hands, SUCCESS! Charlie put some pom poms in the pot!

VICTORY!

My takeaways:

1) The preschool nervous system is very much a work in progress, and some kids need LOTS of time to figure out what seem to us like the simplest of tasks. Kids need time and space and patience and for things to be broken down into the smallest steps.

2) Worry about failure can be so big that it consumes the resources we do have to see what’s in front of us, to take the next step, to see how close we are to success.

3) My next book will be entitled Who Moved My Pom Pom? I’ll have Charlie write the foreword.

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The Creek Elves

creek elf

He doesn’t care that I’m running past him, earbuds in. From his three-foot height, perspective is a tricky thing.

Intending to slide by, I smile at the little boy.

As soon as his eyes meet mine, though, words fly through the gap in his top front teeth. A big boy at age six, he shouts: “I brwaught my sister to the creek to show her the creek, and we rode our bikes!”

Slowing to a molasses trot, I smile again — my heart genuinely feels the smile at the same time my public face, knowing it must be kind to children, makes the right move. “Hey, cool,” I reply, grinning towards his younger sister, all of four, who, gasping with excitement at the sight of her brother talking to a tall person, hikes her charming flowered sundress and holds up a single muddy hand, showing the tall person that she’s been busy.

“I this dirt water brudder.” Her lips move, the voice reaching me faintly over the podcast that pours into my ears.

Still, a four-year-old is waving her hand at me, so I wave back, slowing my movement to two inches per second. Part of my brain thinks, “Should I worry that a six and a four-year-old are by themselves at a creek?” while the other part reassures “Those noggins are still strapped into bike helmets that some bigger person helped clasp.”

As if he reads my fleeting consternation, the big brother in charge continues his information dump. Pointing, straight-armed, up the gravel road, he yells, “We live on Idlewild, and we came over there from Idlewild on our bikes, and there are two ways you can get to our house from here.”

My bladder is full; I consider asking him for specifics about main-floor plumbing.

“Two ways, huh?” I ask, still shuffling my feet, trying to convey that the runner lady has places to go. Yet, gad, an enthusiastic gap-toother is about to provide me with a map to the place where his Legos live. I surely do love Legos.

And I surely do love teaching kids lessons about not talking to strangers, which is exactly what they’ll learn when all their Legos disappear.

I pull an earbud out. All the better to hear him with.

“YETH, THERE ARE TWO WAYS TO GET TO OUR HOUSE ON IDLEWILD FROM HERE,” the creek host hollers. “YOU CAN GO UP THAT ROAD, OR YOU CAN…”

His arm remains outstretched, but he stops. This is hard. Two ways is hard.

“Okay, first you can either go up that road. Or you can –…” An invisible hand reaches up and scratches his head.

I am compelled to help Short Stuff out. “Can you maybe also get to Idlewild if you go on that road, right there?” I ask, pointing at the nearest street.

Attempting to win through volume, the brother corrects me. “NO. NOT THAT WAY. BUT THERE ARE TWO WAYS. ONE IS THAT ROAD. AND THE OTHER IS–…”

He stands, frozen. Yet the energy of adventure fuels him. “THERE ARE ACTUALLY THREE WAYS. IS WHAT I MEANT TO SAY. THERE ARE THREE WAYS. FIRST, YOU CAN GO ON THAT ROAD. AND THEN YOU CAN–… BUT THEN THERE’S A THIRD WAY, TOO, IF YOU GO OVER…”

In this election season, I am familiar with his impulse to cover confusion and ignorance with a flood of words. His parents, no doubt sipping vodka gimlets in deck chairs somewhere on Idlewild while their kids riddle their way home, must be CNN junkies.

The kid is flummoxed, but he persists, saying words about the third way. Street. Bikes. Go. Up. No. Down.

Behind him, his little sister twirls, admiring the flare of her skirt.

I love these kids. But a thin trickle of urine threatens my spandex. Inhaling deeply, I reach for closure. “So there are three ways home? You seem really sure of the first one, so when you head home, that would be the best one to take, right? When you have a couple of choices, but you’re unsure, it’s best to–”

The four-year-old interrupts me with a bellow learned from a gap-toothed master. “HE SAID THERE ARE THREE WAYS. THREE IS NOT A ‘COUPLE.’ TWO IS A ‘COUPLE.'”

These kids are going to be just fine.

Shrugging with defeat, I wave goodbye and turn towards home.

Wherever it is.

There are probably fifteen ways I could get there.

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Swiftly

The whole thing took less than a second–the fleeting fraction of a second, in fact. It was a flash. A blip. A blur.

The whole thing passed so quickly I didn’t fully feel it until the next day, the day after, again today, right now, in the dark, petrified spot at the bottom of my stomach, that fisted knot of a place that sends tentacles to my lungs and yanks down hard, compressing, tightening, squeezing until I gasp to draw a breath.

In time, the thing was an ephemeral flash; inside of me now, days later, the realization of how close it was, how we almost lost them, continues to spread through my organs, a black, cold mist swirling from lungs to heart to brain, coating tissues and making sludge of capillaries. As I butter a piece of toast, I feel the fog of fear spreading again. I put down the knife, suddenly too heavy. As I type an email, my fingers freeze when the recollection catches me sideways. My message is incomplete, but I no longer remember what I meant to say. It calcifies my marrow, this fear, this memory of we almost lost them.

It happened so damn fast, the hard details have soft edges in my memory’s picture of it–a long-exposure photograph where lights have tails.

car blur

Two girls, excited and tired, walked in front of me and my husband, the four of us heading towards a waiting bus.

Then. A step. A stop. A lurch. A blur. A relieved laugh.

And we got on the bus, chattering hopefully about getting back to our hotel before the nearby late-night cookie store closed.

It was easy to gloss over the fright of that moment, moving as we were through a series of sensational events, the stuff of a hearty diary entry. The whole evening–hell, the whole weekend–had been a great boondoggle. Plans for it had started six months earlier when we’d weathered a frantic day of purchasing tickets for Allegra and Cousin Lily to attend the Taylor Swift concert in September. The morning tickets went on sale, I was the only person at home, not at work or school. I had a page of instructions from Allegra, a flow-chart of possibilities (“If there are no seats in Section 116, then the floor would be okay”). For hours, I toggled between multiple open tabs, searching and refreshing and being told all reasonably priced tickets were gone. Sold out. At the end of the school day, when Allegra came panting into the house, excited for news, it was bad.

Over the course of that evening, there were talks between the girls. How much would each of them be willing to spend? Could they bump up to more expensive seats? Yes, they could. Both girls were workers and savers. They had the money. As Allegra noted, “I don’t really buy much. I don’t need stuff. But I need to see Taylor Swift. I will see Taylor Swift.”

We got tickets. The dream would be realized.

Months passed, and suddenly Taylor was upon us. Determined to do it up right, we decided not to drive three hours home after the concert but, rather, booked a hotel room near the university. To fuel screaming and dancing, there was pre-show sesame chicken. Then, to get to the venue, we took a bus to the nearest light rail station, crossing from Minneapolis into St. Paul. At precisely 7:30, Byron and I watched our charges flow into the Xcel Energy Center along with hundreds of other white girls with too much money. Racing towards the experience of their lifetimes, they could hardly be bothered to call out a quick “We’ll text you when it’s over!”

Chinese food, public transportation, swirls of fans in tottering heels exiting rented limousines: it was more than they’d known how to hope for six months earlier. All this, and Taylor had yet to hit the stage.

When she did, she delivered everything her besotted fans could hope for. There was a gorgeous gown as she played the piano and sang a ballad. There were multiple costume changes. There was Mama Swift–clearly responding well to her breast cancer treatments!–roaming the crowd, inviting notably enthusiastic fans to a backstage meet-and-greet. Even though Mama Swift didn’t choose Allegra and Lily, SHE CHOSE SOME GIRLS RIGHT BEHIND THEM AND WAS AS CLOSE TO THEM AS I AM TO YOU RIGHT NOW AS I SHOUT THESE TYPED WORDS. That close. Even better, she looked healthy, which made Allegra and Lily’s night. They’d worried, not certain they could handle Taylor’s grief if her mother were taken from her.

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Their rundown after the concert, as we all lolled in the lobby of the glorious St. Paul hotel together finishing our drinks (Maker’s Mark for Byron, Riesling for me, Sprite for the girls), was reminiscent, in its enthusiastic investment in a beloved celebrity’s minutiae, of how anxious I used to get about the relationship between Shaun and David Cassidy, two legendary talents who never quite gave off the vibe of being each other’s port in a storm.

These things matter.

…especially when you’re 15 or 16, and everything outside the routine turns of daily life–everything beyond lockers, smelly gym clothes, and the heft of an Honors Biology book in the backpack–feels like a glimpse of a possible future, a whiff of When Life Really Starts, a taste of the endless possibilities that can mushroom from energy and smarts and imagination.

When we love a pop star, we believe, very cleanly, in something, and that’s powerful magic, particularly during a stage of life that can be oppositional, driven by a need for separation, mobbed with infinitesimal slights and cuts.

That’s why, as we four sat in the lobby of the fancy hotel near the Xcel Energy Center (more than likely the hotel where Taylor herself was staying), I was completely happy. Not only was my stomach full of sake, udon noodles, and pickled eggplant from the special “date” dinner I’d had with Byron while the girls were at the concert; not only was there a huge bag of nummy popcorn in a bag under the table, bought at the Candyland store near some of the Charles Schultz-inspired statues littered around St. Paul; not only had Himself and I enjoyed a lovely wander around the downtown, stumbling across live music, craft beer, and a Saints baseball game during the ritual sing-along; not only had this evening been perfection for me and Byron, it had been perfection for the two girls who had been squealing “I’m so excited!!!!” for months –or, in Allegra’s case, smiling gently, which is her equivalent of “I’m so excited!!!!”

As the girls squished together into an armchair upholstered with burgundy velvet, the backdrop of a marble fireplace framing them, watching hundreds of fans staying at the hotel wait in line for the elevator, showing off the merchandise they’d bought at the show, the evening was complete.

Taylor had been awesome. They loved her. They were awesome. We loved them.

Eventually, yawning, we headed towards the light rail station. Perching on a ledge out of the wind, huddling hip-to-hip as we waited, Allegra and I warmed each other. When the train arrived, we hopped on, enjoying the mostly empty cars. After a handful of stops, it was time to get off and transfer to the bus. Normally, the light rail extends all the way to the station near our hotel, but for this one weekend, the last leg was closed, and we had to use the bus. Even though it was midnight, a public transit worker waited at the station, waving those of us exiting the train over to the idling bus across the street. The man in front of us, worried the bus would pull out before he got there, started jogging, his pack slapping his back. We, too, put a hustle in our step until we heard the worker call “No need to run! It’s waiting for you.” Slowing a bit, we were still in thrall to the momentum of the man in front of us racing towards the lights of the bus.

He dashed across the street. Talking, caught up in our bubble of four, absent-mindedly following our fellow train traveler, we weren’t paying full attention.

Then. A step. A stop. A lurch. A blur. A relieved laugh.

In front of us, the girls had very nearly stepped out into speeding traffic. Six inches away from a car hurtling by at 40 miles per hour, they halted. Some instinct stopped them, and they leaned back, their hair billowing as it raced past.

The whole thing took less than a second–the fleeting fraction of a second, in fact. It was a flash. A blip. A blur.

Collectively, we absorbed the near miss, our bodies hissing a quick “whoa” before we carried on. Talking. Walking. Catching that bus.

As we neared the lights of the bus, I whispered to Byron, “That was really close, what just happened there.”

Two words were enough: “I know.”

Clambering aboard the bus, we rode to the hotel, watched some Kardashians, brushed our teeth. The next morning, we checked out and treated ourselves to bubble tea before driving to a northern suburb for a stop at Target and Trader Joe’s. The sense of a heightened weekend continued at these places, where Lily randomly ran into her uncle and cousins and, even more startlingly, a two-headed woman was sighted near the underwear section, again by the office supplies, once more at the checkout. Ever on the mission, Lily lifted her phone close to her face and whispered, “I think she was on a tv show. I’ll google it.”

Feeling amused by it all, we–a foursome in tandem, almost by rote at this point–meandered across the parking lot, across the road, to Trader Joe’s and Chipotle. There had been Taylor; there had been a two-headed woman; there would be burritos. After a weekend such as this, we would return home flushed, beaming, renewed.

Of course, something else had happened. Or, rather, not happened.

As we walked, Allegra bumped up against my shoulder and commented, “I keep thinking about last night.”

“Yea, you’ll never get over that concert, will you? Big stuff,” I responded.

“No. Not that. The part with the car. Where it almost hit us. How we could have died.”

Prickles. Scalp to toes. Prickles.

I hadn’t been sure the closeness of that call had fully registered with her.

It had.

She continued, “I mean, for some reason we pulled back, and it was okay, but that car was going really fast, and it was so close. It was so close and going so fast.”

It is the rarest of gifts, to be able to talk to your child about how she didn’t die. “Yea, Leggy, that car blasted by, and none of us really paid attention to the traffic–partially because we were following the other guy from the train, partially because our brains were floating around happily, and partially because there was that kind of guardrail-fence thing there that made us feel protected and separate. But I have to say this: if you hadn’t leaned back, this would not have been a case of you being badly injured or even disabled for the rest of your life. If your feet had been a few inches further out, this would have been a case of absolute death. I keep seeing it in my mind, and it freezes me inside each time I think about it.”

Quietly–of course quietly because that’s her–she agreed, “Yea. Me, too. We would have died.”

Then, wryly–of course wryly because that’s her–she added, “But at least I would have seen Taylor Swift before I died.”

Laughing, I wrapped my hand around her waist, and, together, we walked towards the next thing.

Girls collage

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They Delight Me

I sat in the stylist’s chair, getting my mane snipped.  As another tuft of hair floated to the floor, the stylist made conversation, asking, “So what’s it like, parenting a 14-year-old girl?”

It was a nominal question, meant to fill time, to keep us from silence. Even before I responded, the stylist anticipated the tone and content of my answer; she knew it would strike a note of exasperation before veering into a rant and closing with a sentiment of “Thanks for letting me vent. I guess I needed that.” Instinctively, the stylist knew I would roll my eyes while detailing the

Indeed, much has been made of the difficulty of adolescence and adolescents. Stereotypes and lore have it that teenagers are difficult, snotty, full of attitude. With a box of Kleenex and a bottle of vodka at the ready, we treat parents of teens with something like pity, asking about their daily lives with careful concern, anticipating responses of

However, at the risk of sounding smug, this mother of a (nearly) 12-year-old and a full-on-14-year-old had to break it to the stylist that

she’s not feeling the pain.

Unquestionably, I’ve never liked my kids more than I do currently. Some of this has to do with me:

I wasn’t cut out for the quirkiness of infancy;

I didn’t always excel at the unrelenting physical demands of toddlerhood;

I often longed for the hours to pass more quickly when they were preschoolers;

I happily stuffed them onto the school bus during the elementary years;

and somewhere along the way, they became interesting individuals who surprise me with their competency, intelligence, and humor.

Because I like interesting individuals and being surprised, their adolescence thus far has been great fun. As well, perhaps because I’m an arrested juvenile myself–and aren’t we ripe with jokes about “arrested juvenile”?–I gravitate towards teenagers. At family or holiday gatherings, I’d just as soon sit in the corner with the high schoolers as the adults. Maybe it’s that I’ve taught college students for so long, or maybe it’s that teenagers are a flossy batter of bright-eyed possibility stirred with dawning potential coated with a sifting of goofy energy. It also helps that they very much like talking about themselves and I, despite this blog’s massive evidence to the contrary, have very little desire to talk about myself. Every social interaction is blessedly less exhausting if I can ask a question and then settle in to listening to the answer with little threat of equal self-disclosure expected in return. Teenagers are masters of this dynamic, and I love them for their complete lack of interest beyond the toes of their Uggs.

Then again, I’m being unfair. My kids, while appropriately self-absorbed, display significant interest in the world outside of themselves. The girl has always been fascinated by how those in other countries live. She enjoys books because of the people watching they allow her.  Frequently, she asks, “So how was your day?”

Also (because I’ve decided to truly commit to the GIFtravaganza that is this post), here’s evidence of an external awareness. First, she is all teen: playing cute, looking to garner attention while the camera is on. Out of nowhere, she bombs the video:

In performing her elfin leap, however, she manages to whack Byron. A mere nanosecond after she thunks his back, she is sorry. It’s so sweet, so indicative of her true character; I could watch her apologetic hand pat a thousand times.

Oh, wait, I have.

Similarly, Paco breaks the stereotype of adolescence. Yes, he can be moody, even sullen, but I’m proud to say those traits will always be with him–they are not a phase that will fade away once his body is fully washed with hormones. Primarily, and this too will accompany him throughout life, he is kind. For example, if I mention to him that my back is sore from unaccustomed swimming yesterday, I know he will offer to give me a massage. He is unflaggingly lovely to his peers; we continue to marvel at how safe and secure all kids feel with him. He notes when his teachers have had a tough day and wonders what might have caused that. He is interested to hear about the foibles of my students, mostly because the stories make his jaw drop. Like his sister, he is already aware that people’s lives exist outside his.

It’s an endless source of gratitude for me, being able to like my kids so cleanly and deeply.

In recent weeks, they have given me even more fodder for The Liking of Them.

Allegra currently loooooves Taylor Swift. We’ll not hear a word against T-Swizzle in our household, in fact. Once ticket sales opened for Swift’s upcoming concert (9 months from now), we went through a day-long emotional journey, as tickets sold out immediately but then became available through the racket that is a ticket outlet seller. There are few things our girl wants, but seeing Taylor Swift in concert is one of them. Although the outlet had marked each ticket up by about 50%, Allegra was undeterred in her desire to get. to. that. concert. Ultimately, even though we’re paying for a bit of her ticket as her Christmas present, she is still shelling out the equivalent of 28 hours of babysitting to cover the rest.

In addition to that, there was the matter of Taylor Swift’s birthday. On that day, Swift’s website generously offered up free shipping on all merchandise. Since Allegra lives in a state of perma-fangirl, she could not ignore this opportunity and snapped up another 14 hours of babysitting’s worth of goods.

What’s more, Superfan Allegra also spent the afternoon of Taylor’s birthday baking brownies for her idol. She went through minor agonies when it came time to spell out “Happy Bday” in M & Ms and “Taylor” in sprinkles.

Taylor Swift Brownies

The entire Taylor-based production took me back to my own years of fangirling (Oh, Steve Perry, that replacement front man for Journey is serviceable enough, but his vocals are thin trickles of water compared to your rich creme brulee), years which, to be honest, continue because Jimmy Carter, Willie Nelson, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg already.

At any rate, to have a daughter who baked brownies for Taylor Swift’s birthday is a source of great delight to me.

I am similarly delighted by Paco’s passion for narwhals. They’ve really been a “thing” for him the past year or two, and his love continues to grow.  Appreciating soft buddies, he would respond excitedly to a plush narwhal, but those I’ve found online aren’t worthy. Fortunately, we have a talented friend who is into sewing small creatures, and she allowed me to commission her skills for the narwhal you see at the top of this post. Paco has yet to see it, as it’s tucked away until his birthday next week. With great confidence, I can tell you that this narwhal will have a most-excellent life.

Thanks to  Paco, a real-life narwhal will also benefit from greater protection. You see, before the holidays, the kid got really quiet one day, the sure sign of a brain at work. Then he asked, “Don’t Oma and Grandpa Jay usually make some sort of donation for everyone as a gift, like buying chickens or a goat for a less-fortunate family?”

Yup.

“How much do they usually donate?”

Not sure. Maybe $25?

“Oh, that’s PERFECT. I’ve been doing some research, and for that amount, they could make a donation and adopt a narwhal in my name. Could I ask them to do that?”

Hell, yea.

“And if I get to name the narwhal they adopt, I was thinking Rutherford sounds perfect.”

Without question, kid. What narwhal wouldn’t want to be named Rutherford? Heck, I want to be named Rutherford.

And so it happened that on Christmas morning, young Paco’s delightful wish came true. After opening his gifts, he laid them out, proudly displaying photos and cards from the World Wildlife Fund of Rutherford, the planet’s most-beloved narwhal.

SONY DSC

I didn’t tell the stylist about adopted narwhals or birthday brownies for Taylor Swift. Even though she would have heard those stories and thought my kids were “cute,” they are so much more than that.

They are human beings in the midst of one of life’s most difficult stages, yet they are grand. For that, I not only like them; I respect them.

Whimsical, silly, bright, healthy, thoughtful, unexpected, they are my boon companions.

They make me want to sit in the kitchen and watch them forever.

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kids locked out Martin Luther King who can see the shizz coming?

Blind-sided and Gobsmacked

 

It was just a regular day, suddenly sucking.

Very fatigued that morning, I managed to dress myself, even hooking my bra–not just letting The Ladies dangle and flap in the wind. I even managed to apply a little slap and hairspray, getting in costume to mimic an adult.

Exiting the house, the door slammed shut, and in that nanosecond, I had a realization: I felt in my pockets. No keys. No way to drive the car. No way to get back into the house.

Scrambling and ringing doorbells ’round the neighborhood, I found a neighbor who could give me a lift; during the drive, I heard about how her marriage is over, for reals this time, and she and the kids will be out by spring; getting to campus, I found Groom (who was working the art show) and hollered breathlessly at him not to leave; then I ran into my classroom eight minutes late and hollered at them not to leave before hitching a ride home with Groom, and, moments later, turning around to drive back to the college, getting there just in time to gather up the comma activities I’d gotten my class working on in the midst of my 18-mile dash; finally, at noon exactly, dabbing the sweat from my forehead, I hit a curriculum meeting.

While I sweated and dabbed, our household had the son of a thirty-four-year-old woman who’d just had a double masectomy over for playdate. Two hours later, our pregnant neighbor slid off the road and had to go into hospital for monitoring, which meant we got to entertain her three-year-old daughter for the evening.

By the time 10 p.m. hit, the kids had just gotten to bed; we’d just eaten pesto; Groom had slapped his prone form onto the bed; and it was off to teach my online classes.

Grading a research paper on how Jenny McCarthy cured her son of autism, I found my inner self rejecting all post-post-post modern ironic conditioning. What other possible reaction was there, when grading a college-level research paper on how Jenny McCarthy cured her son of autism–and network stations went off the air–than to tune into The Cosby Show?

Two decades after tolerating an episode, I, to my simultaneous horror and surprise, watched the show avidly. I found it timeless and smart and realistic and brave. It had characters sitting down and talking to each other, in a relatively-unscripted fashion, in five-minute exchanges. It had self-deprication. It had style.

Surreally, I saw myself reacting positively to the show I should mock; I saw myself respecting an easy target. I hardly knew myself. Where’d. my. beyotch. go?

During that episode, I found myself more surprised than I had been by the day of hurting mothers and missing car keys. I found myself moved, barely breathing, taken back to a moment of fundamental admiration and amazement: I found myself, having just weathered 18 minutes of Vanessa and Denise fighting over a purple sweater, well,

I found myself crying.

In this episode, the entire Brooklyn brownstoned family had been fraught with rammies, butting up against each other. A tentative peace had been struck, but all of them, in their shoulder pads and lame’ fabrics, were still stomping around a bit. Then, as they walked through the living room, a voice reached them from the television.

“Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.”

Whatzthat, Scooby?

The Huxtables, plus one pasty white Midwestern girl on a futon, lurched to a stop.

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

Cliff, Clair, and I smoothed down our gelled hair and listened harder, the day’s hassles falling away.

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; ‘and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.'”

We sat down on the couch together, me shouldering in against Theo (who never should have gotten his ear pierced without telling his parents), riveted by astonishment. Something wondrous was happening.

“With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”

Holy Zeke. I may have slammed into the classroom that morning, panting and cussing and apologizing to students for being late, explaining about having hitch-hiked a ride. At lunch, my husband may have fed Pokemon mac ‘n cheese to the son of an stricken woman who had been forced chose to have both of her breasts cut off. At dinner, we may have hosted the soon-to-be big sister neighbor girl, whose mom–six months pregnant–was taken hostage by her car as it careened into a bank of trees. We may have found ourselves exhausted and hungry and overwhelmed by 10 p.m.

I may have found myself going to work, grading papers in my online classes, at midnight. I may have felt achey, physically and emotionally, from the cruddy day.

But this?

“And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,

From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.”

Well hell.

I, who always chafed at the Pledge of Allegiance, was humbled. I had a flash of recalling that I am nothing, yet I am part of everything.

Cuddling in, I held Rudi Huxtable on my lap, and she was soft and smelled of biscuits. And, as I twirled one of her braids, how could I even fake being cool? I was hanging with the Huxtables, sharing in miraculous rhetoric. We were just people, united across decades and networks, held rapt by truth and beauty and words of justice.

Adjusting Rudi on my lap, I admired Denise’s bangles, patted Theo’s be-sweatered back, and continued to cry.

“…when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

———
My worst day wasn’t even on the same continuum as this Best Day.

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dim bulbs hands kids windows

She Couldn’t Pour Water Out of a Boot If The Instructions Were on the Heel

 

A few weeks ago, I was driving a van load of kids towards sweet treats. In addition to massaging the New York Times crossword puzzle, pushing back my cuticles, and pouring Malbec down my gullet, this is what I do. I drive the small people. Towards the ice cream.

Right around the Lake Street exit off the highway, 8-year-old Girl-o-mine advised me, “Mom, don’t close the windows right now with your magical driver’s seat electronic wizardry; I have my fingers hanging out one of them.”

Triggered thusly back into the annals of his five vast years of memory, Niblet then chimed in with a dramatic tale of near finger-loss eons ago when he was a mere boy of four, recounting a story that gisted, “One time I had my hand in the window, and then the window started going up, and then I pulled my hand out really fast, and for a minute it seemed like my hand was going to get caught, but then it didn’t.”

At this point, Brain Trust Neighbor Child, age 6 and strapped securely into the seat next to Niblet (but loosely enough to draw mind-renewing breaf into her lungs), dislodged her finger from her nostril long enough to ask, “So, did one of your hands get chopped off?”

She threw out her query while staring directly at the live, animated version of this clearly double-pawed popsicle sucker:

Up front, suddenly entertaining the idea of cranking up every gadzookian window in the van–especially if Brain Trust’s paw wandered near one–I rolled my eyes and pictured this girl’s future as a visual merchandiser at The Gap, should all expectations be exceeded.

Yea, Fluffernutter. You got it. Ever since that fateful day, we’ve had to call the lad Stumpy. He used to be a regular General Grievous, but now, since the amputation, well, he’s been relegated to a life of single-light-saber battle.

Fortunately, Niblet piped up with a kinder explanation, “No, look, Brain Trust Girl, I have all ten fingers, and they still wiggle. See me right here next to you with two hands?”

She nodded slowly, still a bit bewildered, and reinserted her finger into the neglected nostril.

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clothes contests kids Mom Rick O'Shay whores

My Mama Pimped Me Out Well Before Misty’s Meth-Addicted Baby Daddy Dropped Her on the Corner of Hollywood & Vine

In my youth, a popular comic strip drawn by Stan Lynde called Rick O’Shay ran in the Billings Gazette. Oh, didn’t we chuckle at the exploits of that sheriff and the ragbag crew that staggered across the panels of his life. Lawsy, but we chortled at the antics of O’Shay’s preciously-monikered friends and colleagues in the Western town of Conniption: “Hipshot Percussion,” “Basil Metabolism,” “Quyat Burp,” and, of course, the Native-American “Crazy Quilt. ”

We could hardly wait for the 4:00 a.m. thump on the front porch that signaled the paper boy had delivered our daily dose of cowboy cartooning. Up we shot from our waterbeds, hurtling the Etch-A-Sketch, leaping the Clue gameboard, somersaulting the Lincoln Logs in our quest to be the first to scan that day’s strip. Would Crazy Quilt win the affections Chief Crazy Neck’s daughter Moonglow? Would Stan Lynde have managed to showcase the word “howsomever” in an entirely new way?

This was big stuff for us small fry.

Thus, you can imagine our excitement when a local Rick O’Shay contest was announced. Children from across our arid burg were invited to dress up as their favorite characters from the strip and submit to judging. The winner would win a plaque-ish thing and an interview on the local news. Because Sheriff Rick O’Shay admired nothing more than plaques and news, we knew our participation would please him.

Of course, when one is four years old, as I was at the time, one’s “favorite character” often amounts to “what Mom wants to dress her kid in.” Turns out, Mom had a feather and swimsuit that were itching for an outing, and in this fashion, my character was chosen.

Clearly, my heroic brother, who once held up both hands to stop oncoming traffic on a busy street so that I might cross safely, would be

Rick O’Shay

My five-year-old sister, with her love of shimmying to the tunes of Donny Osmond and organizing girls into teams for popsicle-eating contests, was a natural for the owner of the town’s dancehall:

Gaye Abandon, or, more precisely,
“Madame” Gaye Abandon

For me? Well, Mom had the swimsuit. She had the feather. She understood there was a strip involved. Somehow sensing my future love of pouring shots and sitting on laps, she decked me out as

Sally Forth, prostitute

Baby’s First Mug Shot

Despite my innate sense of modesty, I’ll have you know, friends, that the town of Billings had a Conniption over me. They melted at the sight of a four-year-old streetwalker, so full of promise, with her whole career in front of her. Particularly when my convincing whoreishness was contextualized during the judging, I was a standout: so fresh compared to those hardened 12-year-olds…so Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby…so able to rock the look of garter and heels and locket, the look of a girl who means to communicate “You can have me for ten minutes for twenty dollars; the back seat’s fine. And do you have any Barbies or an Easy-Bake oven?”


Sweet Heidi Fleiss, but you better believe I ended up on the news that night.

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growing up kids nasturtiums pee

The Spindly Nasturtiums

Photos like these remind my head to think nice things


about these miniature people–

lest the only thought in my brain regarding them be,

“Horton hears a tinkle, but what age do y’all need to be before the pee actually goes into the toilet instead of getting mopped up by my pasty white heinie when it hits the seat?”

They have made me Human Charmin, so they do well to pump up the cuteness on occasion and save their own sorry asses.

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Dinko kids meme Vanity Fair

From the Mouth of Dinko






A few days ago, my new blog pal August, smitten with my irrepressible boy, challenged him to answer the Vanity Fair questionnaire that’s been making the rounds.

Wee Niblet, aka “Dinko,” has subscribed to Vanity Fair for years now–two of them, to be exact (the subscription came about during potty training, as he put in long hours of work on the little plastic seat; The New Yorker, with its endless pages of theater productions and show times, tires the preschooler set, so Vanity Fair it was). Thus, he was flattered and happy to rise to August’s proposition. Plus, Dinko has just added “C-A-T” to his literacy repertoire thanks to the PBS show Super Why! , so he was thrilled to have a public forum in which to display his new knowledge.

And now I must wipe a tear from my eye as I, Proud Mama, present Baby’s First Meme:

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Watching Donald Duck have a snow fight with Huey, Dewey, and Louie; I almost wet my Tyrannosaurus Rex pajamas, I was laughing so hard at those cheek-wheezers.

What is your greatest fear?
Our basement. I can only go down there with someone else, and I have to say loudly, “There is no monster down here, for sure…you hear me? NO MONSTER” as we head down the stairs.

Which living person do you most admire?
Porky Pig. S-s-s-s-s-eriously, folks, it was like I saw myself there on the screen when I first spotted him. I lead with pink pudge, too. He’s coming to lunch next week, if I can get the peanut butter open for some sandwiches.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Poop. The fact that I can’t open the jar of peanut butter by myself. But you should see me cut up Playdough with a pastry blender. Now that’s plorable.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?
When they refuse to try on my new paper-mache beanie; they are scaredy C-A-Ts.


What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Sleeping through the night.

On what occasion do you lie?
When I pretend I didn’t hear my sister say “I’m sorry,” just so I can tell on her. My mom would love for me to be bi-lingual, but that would mean I’d have to learn to say “butthead” in Spanish to describe myself.

That sounds like a lot of work. So I’ll continue to be an occasional butthead in English only.

What do you dislike most about your appearance?
That annoying fourth eye sometimes causes me to walk into lamp posts.


What is your greatest regret?
I didn’t ride my tricycle more during the summer of ’06.

What or who is the greatest love of your life?
My mom. And her soft tummy of Love and Comfort. No one can compete.

So stop trying, Dad. You can go make dinner. We’ll be here on the couch.

Which talent would you most like to have?
Being a professional lasso thrower.

What is your current state of mind?
Humming. My mind and mouth hum all day long.

If you could change one thing about yourself what would it be?
I’d have wings and a retractable whip growing out of my hand and X-ray vision and a real live baby dragon.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Making it through seventeen minutes of the Bee Movie

.

If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
Buneary, a cutie Pokemon.
Or maybe a snow plow driver.

What is your most treasured possession?
My beautiful and glamorous fake-real yellow crystal diamond from a booth at the Home Show. All people want this because it is very, very expensive, like $2, and it is a diamond, and everyone wants my rare and exotic crystal diamond.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Seeing the scarecrow’s head rot.


Where would you like to live?

In the bed with my mom.

In the future, it could be on a therapist’s couch.

What is your most marked characteristic?
When I’m hungry, you need to feed me. It gets really ugly, really fast otherwise.

Who are your favourite writers?
Mo Willems; Tedd Arnold; Ruth Stiles Gannett

Who is your favourite hero of fiction?
I listen to Junie B. Jones in the car when we drive around, and she makes me laugh all the time, like Wowie Wow Wow. When she thought her new baby brother was a real, live monkey, I about dropped my juice box.

Who are your heroes in real life?
Did you know my sister can ride a two-wheeler and is really good at spelling?

What is it that you most dislike?
Dressing myself. I kind of refuse to do it. So far, it’s been a pretty effective strategy.

What is your motto?
“I have a really great idea…”

Favourite journey?
The one that ends at Target. They have a whole section of Pokemon cards and Ben 10 toys there. I can push buttons for an hour before I need to go to the restaurant area for a bag of popcorn.

What do you value most in friends?
Proximity. If they are here, I will play. If they like to wear toe socks, too, like me, that’s a bonus.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“You know what?” and “When will Mommy be home?”

Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Louis XVI. I hide my shyness in pageantry, too.

What is your greatest extravagance?
The occasional second bowl of applesauce.

If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
We’d have a cutie baby. Mom says it ain’t gonna happen.

What is your favourite occupation?
Hiding a screwdriver in a heap of Ooblek and then watching it emerge as the slime melts away.

What is the quality you like most in a woman?
Red hair and glasses and an accommodating lap.

What is the quality you like most in a man?
A unicycle.

How would you like to die?
I’m only four. I’m not ever going to die.

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