Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"Doldrums Antidotes"

1) Antidote #1:  Get a good night’s sleep, which is exactly what I did the night of my previous post; when I woke up nine hours later, cobwebs had cleared, and a song--not a dirge--beat in my heart. This, in turn, meant I had to spend a fair amount of time in the kitchen that afternoon pretending to be a member of George Clinton’s band and/or part of Agnes de Mille’s dance troupe. The two groups actually have significant areas of overlap. Remember, for instance, when Ms. de Mille staged her “Get Up into Yo’ Funk” program shortly before her death? Some still speculate it actually led to her death, what with the steady expansion and contraction of her ribcage in sync with the lyric of “tear the roof off the mother.” Few things will more assuredly bring on a stroke.

2) Antidote #2Appreciate that my daughter and her friends’ favorite activity, during playdates and sleepovers, is to toot and pluck together in raggle-taggle musical ensembles. Since they all attend the local music magnet school, they were able to take up a non-piano instrument this year, in 4th grade.

Girl represents the orchestra, and her pals, seen here, bring on the brass and winds. It is nearly impossible for audience members to remain seated when these girls pull out the stops on their “Good King Wenceslas.” Even better is when I get to wave my lighter in the air during “We Will Rock You.” (sidenote: the school district issued an announcement this week that, starting next fall, the city’s magnet schools will be demagnetized, cutting out music, science, environmental, and language foci at various elementary schools; as part of this, non-neighborhood children whose families have elected to send them to particular magnet schools will no longer be given bussing…all of which means, since we rely on bussing to get our kids to their magnet school, that it’s hella good we’re going away next year; it gives us time to hammer out a new schooling plan for our kids, which may very well be that we start an illegal Quaker/Buddhist class in our basement with a curriculum that emphasizes quiet, peace, and cessation of suffering. Imagine the quiet hum that will constitute “recess.” Anyhow, my point here is that I can only use 4th-graders-who-come-to-our-house-and-play-music as a Doldrum Antidote if I practice active denial of next year’s realities…so keep coming over and firming up your embouchure, and make sure you don’t vote for a Republican governor when you grow up).

3) Antidote #3Go get passport photos taken

(My children are very, very small, aren’t they? Relative to their pin heads, I am a towering figure of authority. Actually, I just can’t be bothered to figure out how to save their pictures as larger files. I mean, I’ve got dance and blunt-rolling classes in the kitchen with Ms. de Mille and Mr. Clinton in five minutes, so it boils down to priorities). What perked me up most in the whole passport photo adventure this week was Paco’s attitude; he gets really annoyed with photographers telling him to smile and, in particular, to show his teeth. The fact that he’s in first grade and already has a pretty vehement stance against making posed situations feel even more artificial pleases me no end. In fact, the more he looks like a model for American Gothic in his photos, the happier I get. My secret hope is that his next passport photo will feature him flipping off the photographer.

Renewing our passports is the first step to upcoming journeys, necessary before we launch into the visa process, which gets pretty entangled when travelers want to go live for a long stretch in a country without seeking employment. It will take some doing to prove to Skeptical Visa People that we don’t want to leech off the economy but, rather, will contribute heftily to their wine and chocolate industry profits. Incidentally, and purposely cryptically, I will say only that we do seem to have something like a plan in place for next year (sort of nailed down; sort of loose), in terms of where we’ll go and who will live in our house…but I’m hoping to have a few more things firmed up before disclosing details. Just for fun, we can play a guessing game, though. It looks—fingers crossed--like we’ll be in a place where English is not the primary language of use, on an island, near an active volcano. Anyone?

4) Antidote #4:  Hop on an airplane to a warmer, sunnier place, which is exactly what Mein Groom and I are doing from Wednesday-Sunday (as in, right now!) of this week. You may recall back in October that my sister flew me to Denver to help her organize her stuff and watch cable tv. Ripping a page out of that FranklinCovey Planner, my college friend Shannon (and her helpful mother) bought both me and Groomy tickets to visit her in Austin, Texas, to do the same. Apparently Shannon still has the dress she wore to our college graduation nearly 21 years ago; it doesn’t fit, nor has she worn it since. A little warning to Shannon: Jocelyn doesn’t think you need that dress anymore; she’s aiming to put some space between you and that dress. Keep the memory. Ditch the dress. Plus, Shannon? Let’s get those Christmas decorations put away—and in a big old labeled tub while we’re at it. Then let’s have margaritas and an entree with the word “carne” in it. Because I’m pretty sure “carne” can cure any case of February blues.

There you go. Thanks to sleep, Agnes and George, musical ensembles, the inherent promise of a passport, and the beautiful gift of a junket,

I’m back.

Monday, February 15, 2010

"Each Day So Long It Feels Like a Month"

"Is the phrase 'Slough of Despond' from Harry Potter or what?" I holler to my husband, who is folding laundry four feet away.

We both half-wonder why I'm hollering, what with him standing right there and all.  But, then again, it's been that kind of day.

A hollaback-at-your-knickers-folding-husband kind of day.
In that moment, I was, actually, as much moaning as hollering.  I was mollering--making wounded noises like a beaver with its foot caught in a trap, considering gnawing off the source of its angst and lurching towards three-legged freedom within the dark cave of a dam.

"I don't even know what you mean when you say these words 'Slough of Despond'," my avowed responded, balling up a pair of socks.  "What are you talking about?"

"There's this phrase 'Slough of Despond' that's running through my head, and I was sure you'd know where it's from.  However, I guess we're lucky you have a handsome mug...because your brain certainly isn't paying the rent.  So 'Slough of Despond' isn't a Harry Potter reference? Like you'd know, pretty boy.  Well, hell.  Who coined it, then, if not La Rowling?" I yodeled over mountain-spring-scented heaps of clothing.

"Why do you even ever act like I'd know what you're talking about? You're hardly the most sensical redhead on the block," the delight of my life tossed back.

"Okay, so it would seem I'm making shit up again.  I've got to hit the Google and input 'Slough of Despond.'  Hand to heaven, I wouldn't know a single thing without the Google these days.  Today alone, I've turned to it to find out how many seasons of Project Runway there have been, how many flavors of lip smackers there are in existence, what the name of that ski-jumping Swiss guy is, what alternative therapies to chemo are, what contingencies my car insurance covers, and which Scandanavian town my family members are named after."  With that, I trotted to the keyboard and input "Slough of Despond." 

Turns out neither the eponymous Harry Potter nor his namesaked Swiss ski jumper had anything to do with it--but, rather, it's a turn of phrase from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, a tale that moralizes the weight of sins and guilt. 


As usual, Google has spat out head-turning information, but ultimately my cast has gone awry.  You see, when, over a mound of clean underpants, I badgered my husband, I was searching for a phrase that could express how boggy I've felt this past week.  Here I thought I'd been mired down in the Slough of Despond.

However, my issues have little to do with guilt or sin.  My issues are more of a seasonal, desolate, Februarian nature.  They're more about feeling trapped and choking in a brume of quiet despair.   

With the Slough paved over, I have to try elsewhere to find an idea that captures feelings of being backed into a tight corner and ready to start clawing.

Scritch.  Scritch.  Scratch.

Perhaps the sensation is more resonant with Victorian women and hysteria.  That must be why I've been repeatedly recalling, this past week, my first reading of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" back in high school, an experience that took place on the second floor of Billings West High School, a moment when I sat up straighter and thought, "My bangs may not be as pouffy as I'd like today, and the strap of my overalls keeps falling down in only a limp approximation of Come On Eileen, but that's somehow irrelevant in the face of this poor Victorian woman's powerlessness and culturally-induced insanity.  What the hell, poor locked-up protagonist lady:  let me stretch out a quivering fingertip alongside you and trace the winding pattern of the lines in silent communion."

Indeed, something about this late winter month--coupled with the kids having a week off from school, topped by Paco having had a fever (two weeks ago), a double ear infection (last week), and then waking up with another fever yesterday (on his tenth day of a ten-day course of antibiotics)--creates in me a soul-sucking feeling of desperation.  Doldrums, if you will.

Queerly, essential to this cloying sensation of "I beseech thee for just one small sanity-saving grace, my monarch Victoria" is an overlay of "but, truly, even as I struggle to catch a full breath, aren't I lucky?-- for at least I have a corset and some of that new-fangled indoor plumbing"; that is to say, without certainty that my life is somehow profoundly fortunate, I wouldn't have the leisure to wail about every pip of internal strife.

These last few days, laced too tightly, I am gasping for air.  Nothing is wrong, per se, but every hour feels like three.  I'm tired of all of us being in the house all the time, trying to figure out what to have for the next meal, folding yet another damn load of laundry, filling and emptying the dishwasher.  Certainly, I've tried to mix it up.  I've taught Girl to play Mastermind and Chinese Checkers.  We've had friends sleep over.  We've watched Olympics.  Groom has framed some pictures.  I went to Pilates and yoga and then I swam and ran and skiied.  I've played four simultaneous Scrabble games on Facebook (most noteworthy play of the week took place in a three-way game:  I had just the right letters for "menage," and that's just good old-fashioned Midwestern Protestant irony).  I've read 420 messages in online classes, graded 75 activities, and told students how sorry I am that their a) mothers died; b) computers died; c) cars died; d) enthusiasm for the class died.


I feel like I'm swimming through grey fog, staring at my family and thinking, "It's 1 p.m.  Whatever can we do to get to 5 p.m.?"

Yesterday, we enjoyed brief respite from the fog when we dragged the kids to a neighborhood park.  At first, the kids had to sit and stare sullenly into space.  That's why we have kids, right?  So they can give us reflections of ourselves?

Because Girl is a champ, she got out on the ice (first time in two years!) and took some turns.  She only complained every seventeen seconds about her ankles hurting.  But then she'd get back up and go around again.

After shadowing her for about five minutes, I looked up.  Nice clouds.

Then I looked at Paco, who'd gotten over his Crabbies long enough to start mining for ice crystals and burying the plastic bowling pins we'd brought along (even in a funk, I know how to pack for my kid).  Hey, nice clouds above him, too.

Paco excavated a fossil from a previous ice age.

After excavating, every good archaeologist needs to take a moment to peer into The Pin.

He saw deep into the past, far into the future, and his vision told him...

...that it had been February for some time, and it would be February for quite some time yet, and the hours would continue to tick slowly by,

except for this one, which, thanks to skates and clouds and bowling pins,

actually did feel like only one instead of three.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Lots of Landmines; No Metal Detector:  Part the Last"

A few years ago, I tuned in to a documentary about life in the Alaskan bush, where there are no roads, no stores, no schools. In particular, I was impressed with a 16-year-old girl who lived in the bush with her parents; in one memorable scene, she loaded up her sled, hitched up her dogs, and waved goodbye to Mom and Dad as she pulled away from their log home, off to check her trapping lines. She'd be back in three weeks, give or take.

The purity and freedom enjoyed by that family no doubt had their costs, but in the moment of watching that girl, I could only marvel, "Wow. Really?"

Then there was the time, probably eight years ago, at a toddler playgroup in a local community center, when I witnessed a fabulous single mother urging her ten-year-old son to help out a woman who'd come in, availed herself of the "free" shelf of donated household items, and scored a mattress; watching the woman try to wrestle the mattress out the door, the single mother advised her semi-disinclined son that he should help the woman carry it out and heave it onto her car "because it's the right thing to do, Tyler." Impressed, I tucked that phrase away for future use (ruefully musing that its future use entailed renaming my toddler daughter “Tyler”).

These are the scenarios that informed my parenting ideals: 1) Teens covet fur; 2) Mattresses can be gotten for free.

Oh, all right. The parenting lessons I took from these scenarios were more along the lines of “be brave enough to let children head towards Capricious World and trust that they won’t fall through the ice” and “children should learn that the best motivation is intrinsic.”

While I still give these ideals total props (as the kids used to say in 2002)--and I’m all about shoving my wee ‘uns out the front door and locking it in the interest of advancing Ideal #1--I have to say Ideal #2 is harder, especially because the culture around us is designed to reward kids extrinsically for every minor achievement (kids who make it through a teeth cleaning at the dentist without pitching a wobbly are given a bag of gifties on the way out; my daughter’s class collected money for the Red Cross in Haiti and, in acknowledgment of their efforts, were then thrown a pizza and rootbeer float party). I don’t excuse myself from this flawed system, mind you. In fact, I fit quite organically into a deeply-flawed culture, what with being that way myself. I use toys and food as payment for good behavior; in fact, within the last year, I’ve stood next to Paco and offered him a quarter to try just one bite of a food not on his Approved List of Vittles. It went really well.

He tried the stir fry, spit it out, announced “I hate it,” and took the quarter up to his money jar.

The idea of paying kids to do what they should is pretty pervasive, in fact. The other week, report cards came out.

Report card day was when I first started on this series of four posts about how letting kids rub shoulders with that wench, World, causes an erosion of ideals (which, for the purposes of retaining any self respect, I’m calling “compromise”).

Here’s how report card day played out:

Having just finished leading a 4th grade book club session, I ran down the hall and picked up Paco from his classroom. As he and I then loitered outside the 4th grade classroom, waiting for Girl to be released, I chatted with another mother, whose 4th grade son was yanking on her arm, pestering her about what exactly on his report card could be called an “A.” Yes, the kids are given letter grades, so it shouldn’t be hard to discern (although if he couldn’t recognize an “A” when he saw it, odds are there wouldn’t be any on his report); however, only core subjects are given letter grades. All other subjects, such as music and physical education (etc.) are given marks like “at grade level,” “above grade level,” “satisfactory,” “needs improvement.” This last grouping of marks was the ground upon which 4th grade Arm Yanker Boy was launching his attack. He negotiated, “At grade level means it’s an ‘A’ because it means I’m just where I should be.” Countering, his mom maintained, “No, an ‘A’ would be more like above grade level.” Tightening down the manipulation, Arm Yanker tried, “But at grade level starts with an ‘A,’ so it would count as an ‘A.’” Sighing exasperatedly, his mom said, “Just wait until tonight, and you and your dad can figure it out.” Then she turned to me and explained, “His dad told him he could have $10 for each ‘A’ he earns.”

The Jocelyn response at this juncture was “BWAAHH??” Calling upon my poker face, I simply replied, “Well, I always got a buck per ‘A’ when I was growing up, so I suppose with changes in the value of the dollar…”

Unrelenting, Arm Yanker kept hammering away at his mother, asking, cajoling, repackaging, until I thought, “Okay, Girl, come on out of your classroom. Mommy isn’t allowed to twist the earlobes of young boys, so she needs to go now.”

Moments later, Girl came out, grabbed her belongings from her locker, and walked out to the parking lot with us, excitedly reporting that she’d just been given her report card and couldn’t wait to open it in the car. When she did, the news was good: straight A’s in all academic subjects, with the small oh-shucks of a B+ in art (as she explained, “That makes sense; I’m not very good at drawing”). Rightly, she was glowing with self pride.

A few hours later, she and I went over to a neighbor’s house to drop something off.

As we stood there, chatting, the subject of report cards came up, for their household that evening was being plagued by—get this—a 4th grade boy (theirs) who was yammering, hammering, negotiating, cajoling, and marketing his report card, trying to sell it as a document containing straight A’s.

…because his dad had offered him $100 for getting straight A's, rationalizing, “Well, that’s what my dad gave me when I was growing up, if I got straight A’s.” And, as Cajoling Boy kept telling his beleaguered mother while dad was off at work, “I really want that $100!”

The rub was that his report card featured letters that come a little later in the alphabet than A. Apparently, his mom was supposed to help will them into A’s before Dad got home. Mostly, Mom was willing herself towards a cocktail before Dad got home.

Standing in their foyer, witnessing the grades drama, our daughter, she of straight A’s (beceptin' Art), looked bemused. Nonplussed. A little taken aback.

A few minutes later, as we walked home, she announced that she couldn’t imagine getting $100 for good grades, wondering, with a delightful lack of imagination, "What would I do with $100?" Simultaneously, she marveled that there are kids who get handed $100 by their parents.

Friends, this was my moment to affirm her thinking. I trotted out a long-shelved phrase and, in agreeing with her that getting good grades** is its own reward, I told her kids should try hard in school because “it’s the right thing to do.”

Lest you think that moment of moral superiority lasted or that I’m going to give you an inspirational tale of How to Raise Children—

remember, I’m a bit of a contradictory piece of work.

Thus, a moment after counseling my daughter that her best effort was inherently its own reward, I also mentioned, “You know, when I was growing up, I got a dollar for every ‘A’.”

Extending that idea—because some part of me felt the impulse to give my daughter something for pleasing her teacher (you can shake hands with My Crazy right about now; be sure to hit the hand sanitizer afterwards, though)—I told Girl, “If we gave you the same, about a dollar per ‘A,’ that would be roughly the cost of a new book, and I will never object to buying you a book, so if you’d feel left out not getting something for your good results, I'll buy you a book.”

Her response indicated that her A’s may have been, in fact, aptly rewarded:

"Or shoes?" she asked.

Unfortunately for the moral of this tale, which has suddenly hit the skids, I'm all about irrational thinking, saying one thing and then doing another, subsequently making my husband splutter ("I never got anything for good grades because I didn't need to get anything for good grades")--oh, and I’m also all about capitalizing on the commonalities that will link my girl and me in the next few years, understanding that she is a year and a half away from middle school, Age of Appearances, and therefore I can make the case that laying a good foundation of shoes is, on some level, setting her up for middle school success, and—oh, yes, this too!--understanding that I'm thirty years away from middle school and still not over the power of shoes to make any bad situation feel just one grunt better, I said, "Yea, shoes would work for me."

Hence, it would seem that trying to do well isn't its own reward in our household, but, rather, trying to do well is best acknowledged by a new pair of fluffy Ugg-type slippers (which is what 4th grade girls at her school are wearing with their jeans).

The truth is that there are about ten more paragraphs to the shoe segment of this story, and if I wrote them out, you'd see me striking a deal with Girl that I will give her $6 towards a pair of the special slippers, but she has to pay the rest…and that she can’t tell her brother, as he is the original negotiator/cajoler for external rewards, but he doesn’t get letter grades yet in 1st grade, and so she just has to tell him she’s buying the slippers for herself…and then she doesn’t keep her mouth shut…and then Paco comes to me and asks what he gets for being above grade level on his report card…and then I tell Girl she’s not getting any money from me now because she blabbed…and then she cries and apologizes…and then two days pass…and then I recant and tell her I’ll pitch in some money after all…and so we go to about ten stores and finally find a pair on clearance for $9…which causes me to think the Girl can just cover such a cheap cost all on her own…and so, as of this writing, she has her slippers and paid for them herself, and since she’s so over the moon about them, it hasn’t occurred to her to say, “Hey, Mom, were you going to pay me back $6 for the slippers, since I got six ‘A’s?”

All of this causes me to note that Sir Walter Scott actually had no idea of how knotted “a tangled web” could get, and he really should just come to my house around report card time if he ever decides, from the grave, to revise “Marmion.”

Ultimately, I admit that I, the parent who started out with ideals, was the Agent of Tangling in this situation. Mostly, though, I'm impressed that we made it through report card week without me presenting my parental talk entitled “And Whenever You Feel Bad in Life, There Is No Solace Like Eating Ice Cream Straight Out of the Carton.”


**As someone who is in the business of awarding grades, I’m well aware of how inaccurate a reflection of skill and ability a letter can be. That, combined with the pressures public schools feel due to No Child Left Behind and other systems of accountability (my sense is that teachers give the lowest possible grade in the fall and give the highest possible grade in the spring, to illustrate improvement), pretty much makes me roll my eyes at grades. Grades are like Paris Hilton: all for show, with not much wrapped up inside.

Friday, February 05, 2010

"Lots of Landmines, No Metal Detector:  Part the Third"

With each successive child, it becomes harder to keep World at bay. The door that cracked open with Child #1 gets shoved even wider with Child #2, Child #3, and so on, until the barrier is blasted off its hinges to expose an entire startled-looking family licking Cheeto gunk off their fingers. The humbling that comes from giving way and giving in due to sheer fatigue and overwhelmage is an excellent lesson for all parents, but especially for crunchy types who may have fallen, unawares, into moral righteousness. More than anything, parenthood demonstrates how little control we actually have. It's also a great lesson in the subtleties of Nature vs. Nurture. Before having kids, I might have argued that nurture can overcome anything innate. I also would have maintained that gender differences are largely culturally imposed.

After having kids, I went back, ripped those pages out of my diary, crumpled them up, and gave them to my peaceably-raised son to use as bombs. Yes, much can be affected through environment--but holy Ted Bundy, some programming is just in us from the get go. That lesson was driven home dramatically for me, indeed, when I gave birth to a male.

The girl child had been a kid of talk and cooperation and playing store. The issue of weapons as toys, which so often distresses pacifistic clog wearers, never even came up.  She just wanted to have tea parties with her dollies. Then Paco hopped out of me and asked for a flame thrower.

It is true that two years after having Paco, we overheard him explaining to his 4-year-old sister what the word "gun" meant. She was baffled. "What do you mean: 'gun'?" Drawing upon a yard full of sticks and lungs full of "bang-bangs," he demonstrated. He even showed her the options for how to fall down after being hit by a blast: injured (which requires moaning) or dead (which requires breath holding and no scratching of the nostrils, no matter how itchy they get).

See, Paco knew about guns because we allowed him to be around other kids, and his brain paid attention to parts of their play to which his sister had remained oblivious.  In another of its clever sideways tactics, Sly World also sidles up through "community," something all Birkenstockers value highly. As it turns out, we have an amazing community in our neighborhood, with sharing of food, music, clothes, and playdates. Having embraced our community, which features 4 boys just older than Paco, we also embraced play that revolves around guns...and two options of how to fall down (Moan or Hold Breath, No Nostrils). Further, having embraced playdates at each others' houses, we also have had to accept that most homes have televisions on all day long; thus, our children go over to play but come home talking of Sponge Bob and Bionicles and commercials and gaming systems. To keep our kids away from screens, from play involving mock violence, would mean isolating ourselves and cutting off potential friendships.  Plus, if something is taboo, it becomes shiny and golden.  To neutralize the long-term appeal that would come from making something off-limits, we just step back and let it blow through.

Willingly, we compromise our values.  Bring it on.  Then we can eventually watch it head for the horizon.

Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of how we can't cook up our own version of World and stick it on a carefully-proofread menu occurred when we--get this--wanted to expose our kids to, cough cough, the world.  Three years ago, we planned a three-week trip to Guatemala, where my sister was living and teaching.  This would be their chance to feel like the minority, to see poverty, to not understand the language, not to mention Mommy and Daddy's chance to bring home a suitcase of gorgeous textiles and huge discs of chocolate.

In preparation for the trip, we had to get passports for the kids, which involved going to a government office, taking a number, and waiting in line for some time.

Guess what government offices do to help "entertain" children in the office?  Hint:  it's on par with the government feeding the nation's children mozzerella sticks as part of a "nutritious" school lunch.

The government office kindly provided a television in the corner for waiting children to watch.

On the television, that day we waited in line for passports,


The Teletubbies.

Upon which,


my children (ages 3.5 and 6) had never before laid their eyes.



kind of had been one of my three remaining points of pride when it came to parenting.

But there they were:  Laa-Laa, Dipsy, Po, and Tinky Winky.  Nonverbal.  Vapid.  Round.  Illogical.  Toddlers on acid, really.

Girl easily ignored the images on the tv, as she's never been keyed visually.  But Paco?

Couldn't believe that it was Christmas and his birthday and Easter and Halloween all at once--because seeing those funny guys there on the screen just about arrested his heart with joy.

Yelping, I scrambled to cover his eyes and throw my coat over the television.  Sure, we could do blue raspberry ICEES.  We could live with the occasional mini-hot dog.  We could engage in games that involved severing limbs with imaginary lasers.

But. this. was. unacceptable.

Scrambling towards kid and tv, I tripped, maimed a granny who had merely hoped to renew her driver's license, jammed my car keys into a teenager's buttocks (best time he had all day), screeched wildly, and failed to reach my son in time.

By the time I'd hurdled the coffee table, Paco was a goner.  His heart belonged to The Tubbies.

For several months afterwards, everything was "Tubby, Tubby, Tubby," which, at first, made me come running, but quickly I learned he was referring to his friends from the passport office.  He wanted Teletubby sheets on his bed.  He wanted a Teletubby plate to eat off of.  He wanted books, puzzles, games of The Tubbies. 

Rather than resist in any outright way, we just made sure The Teletubbies mysteriously never aired on our television.  Once, our neighbor gave him a Teletubby cup she found at a garage sale.  I tripped her on her way out the door.

To Paco's face, we remained neutral, not wanting to spark his interest with resistance.

However, behind his back, as my previously-whip-smart preschooler slowed his motions and turned and clapped in the living room, pretending to be a big yellow doofus named Laa-Laa,

I tended to some overdue business.

Fixing a stink eye on her and baring my claws,

I chopped Bitchy World in the Adam's apple,

roundhoused her behind the knees,

and, leaping on her crumpled form with great alacrity,

pinned her throat to the floor and held her there as I put my mouth to her sweaty ear and muttered sinisterly,

"Not this one, World.  Not. this. time.  This time, I win.  You might think you own him, with your fancy high-fructose corn syrup and your head-turning Xboxes, but I'm here to say you've stepped over the line.  There will be NO TELETUBBIES on my watch."

Then I moved in closer and pulled a Mike Tyson on her deceptively dainty ear lobe,

delighting in turning the tables as I

left my mark on her.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

"Lots of Landmines, No Metal Detector:  Part the Second"

If that bitch, World, isn't open to negotiating with parents and insists on staring down the well-intentioned sleep deprived, hands on its Costco-shopping, NASCAR-jacket-wearing, Miley-Cyrus-twitching hips,

then maybe the compromises have to take place elsewhere. 

Like within the well-intentioned sleep deprived.

Certainly, new parents have a few blissful months--even years--in which their personal values dominate, in which they can shape their child's life into an approximation of an ideal.

For example, after My Unmentionables first squozed out our Girl, we took great care with her diet.  Breastfeeding made that job easy (if plugged ducts and mastitis qualify as "easy"), but then, eventually, she needed solids.  Naturally, we went naturally.  Didn't she love her organic beets?!  Didn't she reach for her pureed spinach and smooshed-up pears?! Didn't she smear locally-grown and home-prepared peas all over her rosy cheeks?!  And didn't we assert our desire for her to get the best-possible start in life by keeping all processed sugar away from her for the first 16 months?

On her first birthday, her cake was sugarless, pineapple, and upside down.  Diabetics asked for the recipe! 

Making careful, informed decisions in the first years would lay down a foundation for lifelong health.  Remembering our own childhoods of frozen Zingers in the freezer and "hot dog casserole" for dinner, we vowed to model better eating behaviors.

Our intention, in fact, was to keep processed sugars (and nearly all processed foods) away from her until, well, The Time of Forever...or  middle school, whichever came first.

But then there was this road trip from Minnesota to California, during which toddler Girl and Groom drove the first stint by themselves, camping along the way, while I remained behind and finished teaching a summer session.  A few days before I was to fly to Denver and meet them midway, Groom called to check in and tell me about their day on the road.

To his credit, he was laughing at himself.

Turns out, western Nebraska gets swelteringly hot in June.  If one is camping, there is little relief from the heat, and if one isn't a fan of air-conditioning in the car, then the hot never abates. 

And when the hot never abates, the soul becomes weak.  It's a Hell issue.

When the soul stops at a gas station in a tiny Nebraskan burg where the asphalt is mushy underfoot from the heat, the soul might spot a Very Special Machine of Delights when it goes inside to pay.  This machine is the home of a hallowed beverage christened ICEE.  The very name cools down a sweating soul at least three degrees. 

That day, Groom's soul marched right up to the ICEE machine and pulled a big ole blue raspberry (a flavor that, um, does TOO exist in nature) slushy for himself.   Girl, in his arms, couldn't believe the magic pouring into the cup.  "Me!  Me! Me dwink!"

Eyeing her damp hair and flushed cheeks, Groom gave an "it's only fair" shrug and pulled Girl her own cup of Soul Coolant.

This situation is called "going from 0 to 120"--from having never had a granule of sugar pass her lips to sucking on a blue raspberry ICEE slushy, all in the space of two minutes.

While that moment, that act, opened the door to sugar ("Why, hello, Sugar," drawled the butler), we did still use restraint and aimed for that elusive thing called "moderation."  However, we were no longer committed to a hasty exit from any situation where a beaming chef carried out a platter of cupcakes.  That ability to shrug and say, "What the heck; it's only a cupcake" allowed us to relax, to enjoy, to remain a part of gatherings.

What we discovered is that it's not so much denial and avoidance of World's temptations that leads to good parenting.  In fact, I get a little annoyed by the idea of "good" parenting; we're all just people, doing what we can.  At our house, we've tried to assuage our hippie instincts by overtly talking about temptations and discussing when they're worth it and when they're not.  We had ample opportunity to practice our skills at this when Girl began school.

Starting kindergarten, Girl was tremendously excited that every child was invited to the cafeteria for a free breakfast.  When you're five, and only when you're five, a cafeteria beckons as something sparkly and glamorous.  Because Girl is reserved, and because she has to eye glamour for a bit before stroking it, she took awhile before trying the free breakfast.  But one day.  One day.  She did.

The experience proved startling, for the first time she got up the courage to head into the cafeteria instead of the classroom, she had to stand for a few minutes, surveying the options, wondering where the real food was.  You see, her only choices, thanks to the crazy corporate machinations that fuel federal sponsorship of school meals, were sugared cereals, which she'd never seen before, and fruit in a heavy-syrup-laden cup; looking for plain Cheerios or even a banana, she was bewildered.  She was--and let's all love her here--disappointed.

So she never again availed herself of the free breakfast buffet offered by Seductive World; mostly, as she's continued through elementary school, she's been aware of the poor food choices in the lunches, too, and has opted to bring her lunch from home.  Lest we do too much of a happy dance, though, 4th grade is signaling a shift in what guides her choices. Nowadays, she wants to eat the provided lunch about half the time; not only has she decided she likes the cafeteria's nachos and chicken patties, but she also knows that she can only sit by her friends, who generally choose hot lunch, if she, too, has hot lunch.  If she brings a lunch from home, she has to stand in line and sit with the other brown baggers.  At any age where friends are everything, she has to decide between eating healthily or hanging out with people who make her feel good.

That's like me having to decide if I want to meet Jon Stewart at the micro-brewery for gossip and an oatmeal stout, or if I want to meet Pat Robinson on a park bench to share a zucchini. 

At some point, it's hard to quantify what's "bad for you" and what's "good for you" because nothing Harpie World trots in front of us is that simple, a fact which, consequently, calls into play entire subsets of values (i.e., I'd rather eat and spew crap with a great person than eat great food with a f***tard, which, apparently, reveals I honor a certain kind of humanity above a strict adherence to purity of eats...and then all that gets stirred up by World even more with her Nasty Stick, and eventually I have to lay down on the couch for awhile and put a dishcloth over my eyes).

Thus, it's all a continuum that ranges from "ideal" to "compromise" to "trade-off," and mostly, if the kids are still breathing at the end of the day, if they've smiled at some point during it, if they've asked even a single question, if they've managed to demonstrate a thought of kindness (even if it's picking up a toddler's dropped McNugget and setting it back into her french fry-festooned high chair tray),

then we parents have satisfied all that matters.

Hell, yea, there's more coming.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

"Lots of Landmines, No Metal Detector:  The First of Several on This Topic"

When a child is born, the parent enters into a decades-long negotiation with the world.  The script for this give-and-take reads:

Parent, puffing out chest:  "Surrounded by a loving village of friends and family, my child will never question that she is loved."

World, yawning:  "Fiddlesticks."

Parent, still confident:  "I will provide steadiness and an open heart and opportunities, and they will help to form my child's character."

World, dashing off a quick text to Mars:  "Hogwash."

Parent, bristling and speaking in clipped syllables:  "I love to ski, read, and walk in the woods.  Therefore, because I will model positive experiences with these things, my child will also love them."

Worldgazing into the mirror and fluffing its bangs:  "Suck it."

Parent, absently running a hand across a well-thumbed copy of What to Expect When You're Expecting:  "If I lay down a good foundation in the home, my child will be prepared to take on all of life's challenges."

World, ordering a Large Pepperoni, Extra Cheese:  "Up in ya."

Hmmm.  Upon review, it would seem World isn't ceding much at all--not even feigning consideration of the parent's agenda.  Rather, World enters the negotiations wearing ear plugs, bound and determined to hum "la-la-la" and do whatever the hell it wants to, even in the face of the very best intentions. 

World can be a serious bitch.

As I've watched and experienced this interplay over the last ten years, since having kids, I've noticed that the room gets particularly tension filled when Parent is to put it?  Crunchy.  Does that work?  Is there a term for modern-day lefty/boho/hippie types (besides "Alicia Silverstone")?

No matter what you call us (er, "them"), there are parents--mostly white, mostly well educated, mostly Dems--who greet much of the world with tolerance and compassion.  We--sorry! "They"--buy fair trade and embrace whole grains and present their friends with donation gifts of "one cow, good for milking, which will transform the lives of a needy family in Ghana."  At their best, we/they live thoughtfully and deliberately and hope to be agents of change.

There are flaws in the profile, though.  For example, while such people buy Christmas ornaments made by "a women's cooperative in Nicaragua," they are less comfortable supporting the cottage industries that transform the lives of their own nation's poor--i.e., rapper 50 Cent's G-Unit clothing line.  Even more, at least in my community, while Loving Whitey Libs are largely anti-consumerist, they're also incredible gear heads; you better believe the bleedingest hearts top their $20,000 Subarus with $700 Thule cargo boxes to help carry their $300 Karhu skis. 

And, okay, sometimes there's a certain moral self-righteousness that crops up in the Crunchies (for more of this, SEE:  The Extreme Right).  Finally, when it comes to Crunchies having a baby--and I tell you this as someone well acquainted with Tree Huggery and all its related lentil eating--there are some pretty uniform values in place.  To delineate just a few:
  • ideally, labor and delivery will occur at home; bonus points for water births
  • there will be a 5-10 page birth plan handed over to those assisting with the delivery; should this plan ultimately end up in the hands of hospital staff, the laboring mother will be privy to laughter echoing down the hall, from the nurses' station, if she is able to hear anything over the sounds of her own animalistic grunting
  • the labor and delivery will be "natural," and any mother-to-be worth her uterus will soldier through without medication
  • the mother will nurse for a minimum of one year, preferably two or three
  • all babyfood will be homemade
  • the baby will benefit from the close contact provided by a sling
  • cloth diapers will be used, lest there be no planet left for him/her to inherit
  • co-sleeping is not only safe and easy, it creates a family bond
  • exposure to technology and screens will be virtually non-existent
  • toys will be wooden, not plastic
 This list could continue ad nauseum, of course.  My personal Mommy-Crunch-O-Meter score on the previous items hovers somewhere around 4, but that's a rough calculation, as I did some things with Kid #1 that I didn't with Kid #2, and Kid #2 was the beneficiary of a few things we hadn't known about with Kid #1.  Let's round my score to a 4.16489.

I nursed both kids as long as it worked; we used cloth diapers with Girl (there was a service in town, so every Monday morning the dirties went away, and a new bag--a plastic one!!!--of cleans dropped with a plop); we used a sling with Paco, which, as I recall, allowed me to wash four dishes one day when he was a month old; we co-slept like crazy, in the hopes of getting even 20 minutes of sleep, but it was hardly an instrument of family bonding, as Groom had to to sleep in a different bed, given the limitations of our full-sized mattress; and, em, I would have loved a water birth, but only if a team of epidural-wielding, Speedo-wearing doctors were in the tub with me.

What I've learned, since achieving that initial 4.16489, is how complicated every values decision becomes as the child's life continues...and how that controlling bitch, World, becomes increasingly adept at interferring.  So long as it was just the three of us, then the four of us, dancing around the living room to Joni Mitchell, we remained on the Path of Liberal Righteousness.

Well, except when Girl was colicky for three months, and the only thing that preserved anyone's sanity was our nightly watching of "Blind Date" with host Roger Lodge, a program whose jejune highjinks I still thank for being the sole bright spot in a very dark time.

But when we weren't watching crap tv on Volume 72, we, assuredly, pureed sweet potatoes and talked birdwatching.

Then the colic receded, the baby grew up, we had another, they found friendships, we enrolled them in activities, they went off to school...and before we knew it,

they were citizens of Writhing, Delightful, Unpredictable, Bitchy World--affected by values we hadn't orchestrated.

More anon.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"The Cookies Turned Out Pretty Well, by the Way"

'Twas holiday time.

There, in a quiet, domestic scene, I baked molasses cookies, and my husband folded sheets of paper into gift boxes that would hold the treats.

The Ipod shuffled, and a new song, low and mellow, poured into the kitchen:  "I search myself and everyone/To see where we went wrong..."

"AHHHH, CRACK-ADDICTED MOTHER OF KEE-RIST," I screeched, tailoring my curse to the season.  "How come I hate Sarah McLachlan so much at this minute?  If I holler the words 'shut up,' do you think she will? And also, as long as I'm at it, I thought I liked Sarah McLachlan.  I mean, who the hell do you think bought this CD originally?  It wasn't Great Aunt Ethel, that's for sure.  I can admit it:  I was possessed of McLachlan Fever in my twenties.  She was breathy; she was earnest.  But right now, I find I am passionately annoyed by her breathy earnestness here in the kitchen.  Would my good friend Debbie Harry from Blondie please shuffle up to Sarah, there inside the Ipod, and bitch slap some sense into her Lilith Fair self?"

In his mild way, Groom chimed in, "This song is a bit like opening a time capsule to the '90s."

Energized from the scorching heat of his condemnation, I blustered, "GAWWD.  Doesn't she lead with her uterus, though?  It's all whine, drop an egg, moan, pat an ovary..."

"Yes," His Groomishness agreed, safely, "her vibe doesn't suit our here and now.  She seems dated."

Dated.  That was right.  To my surprise, Sarah McLachlan's pretty, dulcet 1990's tones seemed like they'd benefit from a tour of duty in Iraq, if they hoped to find a place in the '10s.  Without some broadening, well, her work seems like something whose time has passed.

Interestingly, later that same night, when I was out for a run, I listened to a podcast wherein television critic David Bianculli was interviewed about his new book on The Smothers Brothers, Dangerously Funny.  As he recapped the careers of Tom and Dick Smothers, particularly their too-soon-cancelled program The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Bianculli took me back in time, back through the McLachlan '90s, past the Leona Helmsley '80s, before the Bruce Jenner '70s, to the late 1960's.  Just a niblet back then, I do remember watching The Smothers Brothers.  I liked the banjo.

Bianculli's interview gave me the broader context of this anti-authoritarian, groundbreaking program that sought out fresh talent, fought with the network, confounded censors, and provided a solidly anti-war message.  In an era where sex, drugs, religion, and politics were hugely topical yet still avoided on public broadcasts, Tom and Dick Smothers set their focus firmly upon challenging existing mores. Because of its willingness to be provocative, to be rebellious, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was cancelled in a swirl of controversy.  In many ways, the story of this show is the story of the 1960's.

But for me, listening to the podcast that night, the trajectory of The Smothers Brothers is still relevant.  Unlike that breathy McLachlan in her floaty dresses, Tom and Dick's work continues to hold my interest--as Bianculli notes, they continue to have an impact on “today’s TV troublemakers and iconoclasts.”  Maybe I'm just an individual who is disposed towards appreciating agitators and subversion.  Maybe, though, the principles that guided The Smothers Brothers remain fresh even today, in a time of corruption and destruction.  I'm going to argue they're still relevant because their example was to question, challenge, push for change.

And that never goes out of style.

How about you?  Have you been struck by things that suddenly seem passe or unnecessary...or surprisingly appurtenant to the moment?

Outside of the McLachlan/Smothers experiences, I've also recently realized I'm pretty much over clementines this year, preferring instead good, old-fashioned oranges or--the new kid on my butcher block--Cara Caras.  2010 is SOOOO Cara Cara.

But not Irene Cara.

She's out there, on her own.

Friday, January 22, 2010

"Protests Quashed"

For once and all, I'm surrendering.

I don't hate poetry after all.

The issue in my early years seems to have been the wrong poetry applied to the wrong brain.  Now that I'm flailing through Older Years, I keep bumping into precisely the right stuff.

Finally, I get it.

Poetry says stuff differently enough that we understand it more betterer.

For my particular taste, the poems that work are simple and straightforward--but with a little rub in them.

Poet Louis Jenkins, who has lived in Duluth the last 30-odd years, writes just such lines.  If you have any income to dispose towards a volume of verse, I'd recommend you seek his out. 

He writes "prose poems," paragraphs and anecdotes that are denuded of all the "things that insist that the reader should be having a poetical experience,” as he puts it.  In short, his style releases readers from labor and hands them moments of knowing, of cynicism, of wryness.

I also really like that, noting poetry's inability to earn great income, the 67-year-old, long-married Jenkins says he continues to write and publish for the "fame and glory...and the chicks."

Take a moment to give this guy his due, would you?

"First Snow"

By dusk the snow is already partially melted. There are dark patches where the grass shows through, like islands in the sea seen from an airplane. Which one is home? The one I left as a child? They all seem the same now. What became of my parents? What about all those things I started and never finished? What were they? As we get older we become more alone. The man and his wife share this gift. It is their breakfast: coffee and silence, morning sunlight. They make love or they quarrel. They move through the day, she on the black squares, he on the white. At night they sit by fire, he reading his book, she knitting. The fire is agitated. The wind hoots in the chimney like a child blowing in a bottle, happily.
"A Quiet Place"

I have come to understand my love for you. I came to you like a man, world-weary, looking for a quiet place. The gas station and grocery store, the church, the abandoned school, a few old houses, the river with its cool shady spots . . . . good fishing. How I've longed for a place like this! As soon as I got here I knew I'd found it. Tomorrow the set production and camera crews arrive. We can begin filming on Monday: the story of a man looking for a quiet place.
"Uncle Axel"

In the box of old photos there's one of a young man with a moustache wearing a long coat, circa 1890. The photo is labeled "Uncle Karl" on the back. That would be your mother's granduncle, who came from Sweden, a missionary, and was killed by Indians in North Dakota, your great-granduncle.

The young man in the photo is looking away from the camera, slightly to the left. He has a look of determination, a man of destiny, preparing to bring the faith to the heathen Sioux.

But it isn't Karl. The photo was mislabeled, fifty years ago. It's actually a photo of Uncle Axel, from Norway, your father's uncle, who was a farmer. No one knows that now. No one remembers Axel, or Karl.

If you look closely at the photo it almost appears that the young man is speaking, perhaps muttering "I'm Axel damn it. Quit calling me Karl!"
"Too Much Snow"

Unlike the Eskimos we only have one word for snow but we have a lot of modifiers for that word. There is too much snow, which, unlike rain, does not immediately run off. It falls and stays for months. Someone wished for this snow. Someone got a deal, five cents on the dollar, and spent the entire family fortune. It's the simple solution, it covers everything. We are never satisfied with the arrangement of the snow so we spend hours moving the snow from one place to another. Too much snow. I box it up and send it to family and friends. I send a big box to my cousin in California. I send a small box to my mother. She writes "Don't send so much. I'm all alone now. I'll never be able to use so much." To you I send a single snowflake, beautiful, complex and delicate; different from all the others.
"Appointed Rounds"

At first he refused to deliver junk mail because it was stupid, all those deodorant ads, money-making ideas and contests. Then he began to doubt the importance of the other mail he carried. He began to randomly select first class mail for nondelivery. After he had finished his mail route each day he would return home with his handful of letters and put them in the attic. He didn't open them and never even looked at them again. It was as if he were an agent of Fate, capricious and blind. In the several years before he was caught, friends vanished, marriages failed, business deals fell through. Toward the end he became more and more bold, deleting houses, then whole blocks from his route. He began to feel he'd been born in the wrong era. If only he could have been a Pony Express rider galloping into some prairie town with an empty bag, or the runner from Marathon collapsing in the streets of Athens, gasping, "No news."

I keep my clothes in a suitcase at the foot of my bed.  I haven't been anywhere and have no plans to go anywhere, but these days you never know, and besides it gives me a focus for my anxiety and for my occasional moments of unfounded excitement and anticipation.  Every morning I take out clean socks and underwear, etc. and throw the dirty clothes back in the suitcase.  Once a week or so I take the suitcase down to the washer and dryer in the basement and sit around naked waiting for my clean clothes.  That's about it.  The days pass quickly enough.  Once in awhile I see old friends.  "You look tired," they say or "Why the long face?" I reply, "Well, you know, it's stressful, living out of a suitcase."

There are moments when a person cannot be seen by the human eye.  I'm sure you've noticed this.  You might be walking down the street or sitting in a chair when someone you know very well, your mother or your best friend, walks past without seeing you.  Later they'll say, "Oh, I must have been preoccupied."  Not so.  At times we are caught in a warp of space or time and, for a moment, vanish.  This phenomenon occurs often among children and old people.  No one understands exactly how this happens but some people remain invisible for long periods of time.  Most of these do so by choice.  They have learned to ride the moment, as a surfer rides the long curl of a wave.  How exhilarating it is to ride like that, a feeling of triumph to move from room to room unseen, only the slightest breeze in your passing.

Some children did handsprings or cartwheels.  Those of us who were less athletically gifted did what we called somersaults, really a kind of forward roll.  Head down in the summer grass, a push with the feet, then the world flipped upside-down and around.  Your feet, which had been behind you, now stretched out in front.  It was fun and we did it, laughing, again and again.  Yet, as fun as it was, most of us, at some point, quit doing somersaults.  But only recently, someone at Evening Rest (Managed Care for Seniors) discovered the potential value of somersaults as physical and emotional therapy for the aged, a recapturing of youth, perhaps.  Every afternoon, weather permitting, the old people, despite their feeble protests, are led or wheeled onto the lawn, where each is personally and individually aided in the heels-over-head tumble into darkness.  When the wind is right you can hear, even at this distance, the crying of those who have fallen and are unable to rise.
Jocelyn's prose poem, a shout out to Jenkins:

"We Cannot Consider Your Offer at This Time"

I spent two hours today uploading photos.  We're hoping to go live somewhere else for a spell, so we've signed up with some home exchange agencies.  Selling our lives to others requires photos and many fawning adjectives, packaging the quality of our refrigerator so that Australians or Germans want to come use it.  As I clicked the upload button repeatedly, having each attempt fail, a drumming began in my head, one that pounded, "You are very busy thinking about next year when, right now, there is work to do here, now."  In response, a different drum beat a tattoo of, "Yes, but when I think of the possibilities of next year, the here and now seem prettier." Then I clicked the button again. I went to yoga and squatted out the tension.  Later, after I sent out 45 letters of inquiry, the responses began to trickle in:  "I'm sorry...," "...already committed...," " of luck..."  Reading these over, I went back to doing the work of here, now.

Monday, January 18, 2010

"Wherein This Becomes the Easiest Place for Me To Show Pictures To Family and Friends; For All Other Readers:  I Appreciate Your Forebearance"

What with turning seven and all, Paco had a party the other day.

Paco and Groom made the invitation. The rock monster on the highest ledge represents Paco.  He yells, "It me birthday!"

The festivities began with some pinata whacking, which resulted in a tumble of fruit snacks, candy, and Scavenger Hunt clues.

When I saw this photo taken by my husband, I had to holler, "Did you climb up the side of the swingset to snap this? What a vertiginous view!"

Then he informed me that he'd simply stood next to the circle of scrambling kids and shot the photo, and I had to yell some more: "You are a freakish giant, Mr. Lincoln, even without your stovepipe hat. No wonder children fall into a protective heap when they see you coming!"

Once they recovered from the presence of a gargantuan in their midst, and with their first clues in hand, Team Neighborhood Rockstars and Team Birthday Boy set off to peer in the compost heap, the tailpipe of the mini-van, the costume bin, and the washing machine. Ultimately, they discovered stashes of Lego sets.

You see, when considering his party options some weeks before, Paco had quickly realized, "I just want to have friends come over and build with Legos."

Important historical footnote: the last time we hel Paco's party at our house was when he turned three, and we had an open house with about 40 people, mostly stunned mid-winter parents staring blankly at their off-the-walls jumping, cabin-fevered children. For two weeks after the party, we despaired of ever righting the house. Thus, from then on, we've taken the lad's party off-site.

Four years is apparently requisite healing time, though, as Paco's desire to sit and build struck us as tolerable. We estimated what a "venue" party would have cost and decided to put an equal amount towards getting each party attendee this year a Lego set.

As we planned the party further, brainstorms of all sorts of add-on Lego-themed activities swirled, such as playing Drop the Lego in the Jar or Pin the Mini-Figure on the Castle, but Paco was having none of it. He just wanted friends and Legos and building.

We did manage to sneak this cake in on him, though.

Incidentally, although Groom is prodigiously gifted in the kitchen, and he does most things well, he is the first to admit he can't frost a cake. This fact, along with his complete inability to move to music, keep him tolerable.

Oh, and there was one more thing, in addition to building with friends, that the Birthday Bubs wanted.  Paco also wanted a tunnel through which food could be served, so that each kid could stand in front of it, watch a bit of abra-cadabra-ing, and then...with a lift of the curtain...

Voila!  Mac 'n cheese!

And in one memorably traumatic course, Severed Head!

They built.  They ate.  They got serious giggles.

Once the all the submarines and wreck raiders had been snapped together, the big Lego brick of a cake came out...

the seven-year-old filled his lungs, fluffed his hair...

...put his lips together and blew.

And then--oddly--an Abe Lincolnish giant came out and did some magic as he cut the cake, serving each blue piece through a tunnel.

One of the kids wasn't aware he was supposed to eat the cake; by mistake, he ate Mr. Lincoln's hand instead.

Considering the assembled crew, however, we felt lucky to have gotten by with only one severed head and one cannibalized hand.

Last time we had Paco's party at the house, an entire grandma went missing.

At the end of Paco's Lego Birthday, therefore, we were able to whistle the best possible wrap-up to any kids' party:


Friday, January 15, 2010

"A Little Song, a Little Dance, a Little Seltzer in Your Pants"

At 7:47 a.m., there is the skitter of an elf hurtling toward the bed.

"I'm coming to give you your cuddles, Mama!"

Usually, Paco's Hug My Mama time lasts for about ten minutes, until I rouse him towards the bathroom to get ready for school--and by "rouse him," I mean zzzzzzzllllllbbbrrrrrr his tummy, talk to him about ninja strategies, contemplate what Fire Type Pokemon he might be, and then pretend to be a locomotive called The Baby Express. Once he's ready to board The Baby Express, I am required to chug to the bathroom, Paco clinging to my torso, as I chant, "Honk honk, choo choo, the Baby Express is comin' throooooouuuuuuuughhh." Moments later, he sits on the toilet while I "do his hair."

The other morning marked a departure from that ritual. Certainly, there was the skitter. But when his soft warmness hit the bed, Paco announced, "I woke up early today, so I read in bed. Boy, did I read some good stuff. I brought one to read to you. It's called Monster Money."

In the ensuing three minutes, I was not only assured that monsters are "even funnier than aliens," but I also learned the various ways that I, were I a monster, could come up with a dime so that I'd have enough money to buy a pet from a store that--Praise the Sleestack--only charges ten cents per animal. Turns out, I might just have a dime. But I also could put together two nickels. Potentially--and get this: I could also add together a nickel and five pennies. Alternately, if I'd really scraped under the couch cushions and taken all the random lint trap change off the top of the dryer in the basement, I might have the luck to come up with ten individual pennies. No matter what, my dedication to dime finding would result in a bat, a rat, or a beetle coming home with me to the swamp.

Having wrung every possible dime configuration out of Monster Money, Paco sat silent for a moment before announcing, "Now I'll hug you for awhile...hey, NO, wait:  I read an even better book this morning.  It's so funny, Mom.  You gotta hear it."  With that, he launched himself back to his Kid Cave, grabbed the book, and hustled back under the duvet with a "You're gonna laugh A LOT at this one, so maybe you should run to the bathroom before I start."

Seeing that he held Froggy Plays in the Band,

I trusted his wisdom and busted out for a potty break.  Upon my return, I had to caution the lad, "You only have about two minutes until we need to get moving, or you're going to miss your bus."  Reassuringly, Paco patted my hand and assured me, "Even with pressure, I can read very fast." 

About three pages in, I realized that the book would take more than two minutes and that I am totally the mother who will drive her kid to school, if it means he gets to finish a book he's excited about. Plus, it's impossible to shut down Paco's vigorous oral interpretation (his first grade teacher commented during our parent/teacher conference, "When he reads out loud, he's like a storyteller," at which point I hugged on her and, shortly thereafter, asked if she could Baby Express me to the bathroom).

So he read.  He gestured.  He stopped periodically to make sure I wasn't missing anything, especially the part where Froggy jokes, "I'm on the phone--the SAXaphone!"  Towards the end, we had to take a 30 second chuckle break on the page where Froggy gets hit in the head with a baton.

The book done, we raced through Paco's morning ablutions, and he still had time to choke down a chocolate chip pancake and some dill pickles before dashing out to the bus.

With the little nutter off to school, I went back to bed, musing that I couldn't have anything but a shiny, happy day when it had started so auspiciously.  As ever, the kid set me up to smile.

He's done that for seven years now.  Close readers of this blog might be thinking, "But, Jocelyn, your first grader is six. I hate it when parents are so out of touch with their children that they don't even know how old they are.  This example of Negligent, Distracted Mother Jocelyn is exactly why our jails are so full."  News for all of y'all huffy close readers:  Paco is having a birthday this weekend.  He's turning seven.

And since he is the source of at least 55% of the smiles in this household, we're all finding it easy to surf the wave of excitement about this milestone.  You see, he owns us.

From the way he reads to me in the way he makes up "shoot-the-cannon" games with his beloved older sister "De-De" the way he sighs ominously towards Groom and announces, "I think we're going to need to make a project today, Dad.  Do we have wire and some foamy stuff?"...the lad is our bestest buddy.

What I'm looking forward to in the next few years of elementary school is further blossoming as he develops greater depths of confidence and coping skills, as he makes friendships that reflect back to him a new perspective of himself, as he fine tunes his schtick for more varied audiences.  He'll begin the process of separating from us, his greatest fan club, and that's just as it should be.  I'll be able to see him better once he's a couple steps away.

Already, he has found an activity that is his and his alone--something that no one in the family has done before him.  With every other lesson or sport or activity, someone can say to him, "I used to love swimming lessons when I was a kid" or "When De-De started soccer, she never touched the ball either," but with martial arts, it's his alone.

So is the orange belt he recently earned.

In the next years, he'll continue to earn and learn and carve and shape his own world. He'll become his own self and not just a kid who often wants to crawl back inside me.

No matter how he changes, though, I feel certain he'll always be a serious goof-ass, ready to tussle in the snow:

I predict, too, that when the tussling's done, he'll still have the impulse to drop for a refreshing amuse bouche spit onto his dad's leg.

And when the tussling and amusing and spitting are done at the end of his every future day--wherever he is, whomever he's become--I hope he'll always be buoyed by a feeling that he's not alone.

For always and ever, we're in his corner

and he's in ours--

a vital, sparkling elf

skittering through life.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"When It Works In My Favor, I Go Biblical"

This week, I've been waiting for news.

It came this afternoon.

Girlfriends (and Furiousball, who is total Honorary Girlfriend): next year I'm going on sabbatical.

For the whole year.

Those of you who read my last post are, no doubt, able to appreciate how welcome and timely this news is.

The truth is that many of the feelings expressed in that previous post are constant, nothing new; they sum up 19 years of teaching community college students. The job is what it is. However, there is also a wearing down over time that happens, an erosion of energies and enthusiasms,

which is exactly why sabbatical was invented by God on the seventh day, when He was just plum tuckered from making waterfalls and zebras and toenails. On that seventh day, Dude jumped back, kissed Himself (or, as my students write, "hisself"), and realized He was tapped out and needed a sit-down.

So then He waved around His staff and created the weekend.  After a little more thinking, He conceded that sometimes a longer break can be more fruitful.  The concession made, He then created Wikipedia so there would be a place that could describe all of His Multitudinous Works, including the idea of periodic downtime.  The Wikipoodle defines sabbatical as

"a rest from work, or a hiatus, often lasting from two months to a year. The concept of sabbatical has a source in shmita, described several places in the Bible (Leviticus 25, for example, where there is a commandment to desist from working the fields in the seventh year). In the strict sense, therefore, sabbatical lasts a year.

The foundational Bible passage for sabbatical concepts is Genesis 2:2-3, in which God rested (literally, "ceased" from his labor) after creating the universe, and it is applied to people (Jew and Gentile, slave and free) and even to beasts of burden in one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11, reaffirmed in Deuteronomy 5:12-15)."

This beast of burden, for one, is ready to lay fallow. 

Or whatever.

So long as it means I'm not grading Cause/Effect essays for awhile or asking the twelve-seventy-thousandth student to capitalize the word "I."

Seven years ago, right around when Paco was born, I had a one-semester sabbatical; I was stunned upon my return to campus at how re-energized and re-invigorated I actually felt.  Mostly, I thought I'd go back to the classroom and be cranky that my clog-dancing free time was over.  To my surprise, though, I felt really ready to be back--genuinely pumped up and eager to try new things. 

I maintain, therefore, that the concept of the sabbatical has merit and isn't just a way for lazy people to live out their fantasies of lying abed for three months, watching The View while self-corn-rowing their hair.

For this upcoming sabbatical, in fact, I have a four-pronged proposal (approved both by the college president and, as of today, by the state of Minnesota).  I'll make some videos to embed into my online classes; I'll attend a whoop-dee-doo conference after which I'll revamp my Short Story class assignments; I'll create a new online literature course (Multicultural Literature!); and I'll, well, I'll play around with some of the posts I've written right here and see if I can get them to relate enough that I can call it a manuscript.

So it's not like my year off will be a Year Off.

But.  Freedom from a daily schedule will have one huge side benefit:  it will allow our family to travel--ideally, to live abroad for as long as we can afford it.  I'm all about yanking the kids from school for a year and either homeschooling on the road or having them attend school in another country.  I'm urging Groom into looking at graduate programs in Art in, say, Florence.  I'm thinking about signing up with a housing swap agency. I'm not above begging friends and strangers alike if they have friends anywhere on the planet who would like to help welcome an American family as it settles in to their culture.

Basically, now that everything's set, everything's up in the air.  That's the excitement and overwhelmage:  anything is possible right now.

So hep me, Fair Readers.  If you had a year, a family with elementary-aged kids, 80% of your usual pay, and a desire to live abroad, what would you do?  How would you choose a place?  How would you find a place to live?  How much importance would you place on it having cheap wine? How would you know if your family is covered medically in that place?  And so on...

Pease, pease, throw me ideas, luvvies, so I can clap at the pretty colors.  'Cause right now I'm lurching around a place that's both a blur and a wheeeeeee!...