Saturday, March 25, 2006

Hey, mom ... you're fired!

Purple and pink

I wasn't expecting the phone call alerting me to the e-mail.

I sensed something uncomfortable afoot when she became eager to hang up the phone, instructing me to read the message and call her back. This isn't the first time I've been in this uncomfortable place. Since getting married, however, I thought I would NEVER again have to hear the most frightening words to ever loom over a relationship: "WE HAVE TO TALK."

And now, it seemed, one of the MOST important relationships in my life was on the rocks. As I read (and reread) the six paragraphs, it became painfully obvious our babysitter was breaking up with me. Well sort of, anyway. She wasn't quitting, thankfully, she'd just decided the smoothest way to make the morning transition less exciting would be to do it quickly. It would be easier if I were a long-distance partner.

For two years my morning routine has revolved around wrestling an infant-turn-whirling-dervish into a breakfast bib, fresh clothes and then the car seat, and driving 17 minutes to a warm cup of coffee and the connected feeling of friendship and commiseration. What could be better than catching up on girl talk and having (and being) a sounding board as the kidlet loosens her kungfu grip on the collar of my shirt and ventures out into a room littered with toys?

As I studied the detailed account of her thoughts in the electronic missive — all carefully crafted so as to give me the letdown gently but providing little room for argument — it became clear I had two choices: drop my kidlet off in the morning and leave or drop my kidlet off in the morning and leave. The only variation in the choices was how I could spend my time before my arrival or after my departure.

I should have seen this day coming. I sensed it the same way I sensed that my high school boyfriend was looking to the blonde beyond me. Yet I pushed it to a dark corner of my mind where it took its place next to the elephant I was trying to ignore, as well.

See, lately, Ittybit has been having a power struggle between mom's authority (which is somewhat lax) and Lori's (which is considerably more stringent). For a few months most of our mornings have begun with meltdowns and playpen timeouts that drag on until THE MOM leaves. It's a daily lottery that has no discernible pattern. Sometimes she's joyful and eager to play with toys and other days she's clingy and cranky, eager to play one legislator against the other.

It’s a roller-coaster emotion of care provider rejection: That pivotal moment when it becomes clear that you, as a parent, are doing more harm than good with your presence in the playroom.

As I sat at my desk rereading the e-mail, I felt my heart sink as the largest part of my social network suddenly became unmoored. The two-woman coffee klatch I savored each day for the past two years was adrift. I suppose I didn't really need the caffeine as much as the camaraderie.

But as I look at my Ittybit, I see another reality looking back at me: The baby has vanished and a full-fledged person, with new needs, has taken her place. It’s only natural for me to feel unsteady as I search for my place in this new development.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Will power

Two years, two months and nine days.

That’s how long I was able to hold off introducing Ittybit to the inherent evils of fast food.

Friday morning, as we dashed through a breakfast of pancakes she didn’t want, cereal she only nibbled, and fruit she just wanted to hold, I asked her what she really wanted to eat.

“NO REALLY!” I said, implying with as urgent a tone as I could muster that I was serious and there would be no more of this dilly-dallying about.
“Shawsheege,” she said happily.

Oh, of course, sausage – the only bit of fatty, artery clogging animal flesh our house was lacking that day.

“We don’t have any sausage, honey,” I said with the sweet dulcet tone ebbing back into my voice, “how about some of this yummy soy bacon?”

“Nooooooooooooooooo,” she moans.

And here’s where things go horribly wrong. (I know you’re all thinking … no, the SOY bacon was where things went awry.)

“Perhaps we can stop at the store … later,” I mumble.

Here’s a tip for any one who has ever made or even implied making a promise to a child hoping they would forget about it the minute they were strapped into a car seat and the neighborhood dogs — out with their owners for their morning constitutionals — go whizzing by the car: Don’t do it.

This is not your husband or wife. … This is a person, albeit a small one, who generally gets all the sleep they need and whose desire for things is not clouded by the hoops one must hop to acquire them. And you might as well know that there are no children on Earth gullible enough to be duped by a crazy woman in the driver’s seat pointing out the window and yelling, “Oh, honey, look at that cute puppy.”

Two seconds later. ...

“Shawsheege, Mama. Shawsheege, PEAASSSE!!!”

As we pass the grocery store I try to reason with her. “Honey we can’t go there now. We have to go to the bank and then to the babysitter. We’ll get some later.”
“No now. In there. Shawsheege in there, mommy.”

Just then, her sweet toddler voice is replaced by a loud, piercing cry, and foreign-sounding words begin to tumble out with sobs and “shawsheege.”

It’s no use. I check my pockets for change and, finding some, pull my car into line at the McDonald’s drive-thru. As I wait my turn I contemplate how much longer my commute to work will be now that I’ll be choosing a route that doesn’t include any glimpses of the golden arches.

Before I can chart the course, it’s my turn and I inch the car forward. I ask the box if I can just get a side-order of sausage, and the nicest, static-filtered voice I ever heard replied, “Oh, you sure can. Drive on up to the second window.”

The cashier laughs a little as I hand over a mountain of small coins and gives me a small bag in exchange. She waves at the toddler sitting in the backseat, who is wide-eyed as the pungent aroma of sausage fills the car.

“Oh, shawsheege,” she squeals in utter delight when she opens her package and finds a perfectly round patty steaming up at her.

“Shank you, mommy. Oh shank you,” she says, petting the folded box as if it were a kitten.

Before I pull away from the widow and drive into the rest of my day I ask her if she’s going to eat some.

“No. Save it fo’ later.”

I guess she just has more will power than I do.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Until next year, adieu Mr. Snowman

The snowman sits on the lawn, a sad little puddle of his former self.
“Oh, no! NO MAYN,” Ittybit opines with every ounce of drama she can muster, pointing toward the soggy lumps of snow partially hidden by a small pile of colorful winter clothes.


If only I could fix it.

These cheerful little winter beings, draped in last year's woolens and sporting leftover produce from the refrigerator to accentuate their chiseled features, were an important part of my youth. More so than I ever knew.

There are many photographs of me leaning against a population made entirely of snow; my front yard friends. Images of great sleeping giants — too heavy for my 12-year-old self to lift into upright positions — mingle in the old shoebox with endless summers at the lake and pictures of my teenage feet.

These days when I see a snowman my mind travels past the simple joys of childhood and rests on a single dog-eared photograph in that box of memories. A childhood friend, lost.

Its color has faded a little with time but the crispness hasn’t. It shows two seven-year-olds, wearing different colored parkas with similar fur-line hoods and exactly the same toothless grins, sitting side by side on a half-finished snowman. Whenever I see it time always comes rushing back.

We had similar-sounding names and similar pre-teen interests. When he visited his grandmother, who lived next door, he routinely made his way over to my house. Ringing the bell, he’d eagerly ask for himself as my mom opened the door. My mother loved him. She joked every time he visited that she’d like to hide him in her pocket.

That snapshot represents an idyllic childhood friendship filled with leaf pile jumping, sledding and summer lightning bugs we collected in jars — a bounty of quarter apiece put on their heads by the boy’s visiting war-hero uncle. We gazed at them in amazement as they performed a phosphorescent ballet. Magic bottled in jars.

He died in a car accident on a lonely country road a few months after I started college. He wasn’t the first of my friends to die this way nor, sadly, was he the last. But it is his memory that haunts me every winter when the snowmen begin to appear.

I think it’s because the idyllic childhood of my memory is laden with stories of him and memories of other neighborhood kids so marvelous that I have forbidden myself to seek revelation lest the miracles be explained away with matters-of-fact. Many of those children have grown up and moved on just as I have. They have new adult friends and busy lives.

As we walk past the “NO MAYN,” I reassure my Ittybit that there’s nothing to fear or fix. The snowman will be back again next year and he will be just the same as she remembered. In some ways I am also reassuring myself.

There was a time when I thought that I had outgrown my childhood friends, but now I don’t think it’s exactly true. I think they are as important to my childhood as my daughter is to the life I have now. And in some comforting way, they are all the ages they were when last I saw them. I am too.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Untrue believer

coffee talk

While my husband was away on a business trip recently I joined a cult.

I know it may sound a little bizarre coming from a lapsed Catholic, former altar server-turned agnostic yoga practitioner who doesn’t especially feel spiritually or creatively unfulfilled (except on Mondays). But that’s essentially what I did.

Perhaps it was out of boredom. It can happen. My mother suffered a similar ennui early in our lives while my father was away on business. In her case, however, it happened when two lovely Jehovah Witness members came calling one afternoon.

She invited them in for lemonade and a refresher course on the Watchtower. Having no intention of converting, she merely craved a little conversation. Every time they wanted to leave, she’d just asked another question and poured more lemonade. By the time they were able to scramble out the door, probably way past dinner time and their bladders no doubt bloated, she said she knew they’d never be back.

My lunge toward a spiritual awakening, however, was spurred by the Internet, and my need for adult conversation.

With a few friends raving about miraculous claims concerning Julia Cameron’s self-help manual “The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity,” the wave that’s apparently sweeping the nation, I decided one late night that I had to see what all the fuss was about.

The last time I did this, mind you, I ended up with two rubber brooms hawked by some slick Australian shill, who, at 2 a.m. one lonely night, was speaking my language — the easy removal of pet hair from any carpeted surface.

Of course I KNOW when a salesperson throws in a second identical product as a “free gift” for the incredible price of only $19.95, the chances of the item actually working as described decrease exponentially. But my need to believe in the power of this broom, however, was much greater than my fear of being robbed of $24, including shipping.

In fewer than four days my cut-rate used book had arrived and I was on my way to experience enlightenment.

The book is divided into sections by weeks, and contains non-negotiable rules such as writing three pages of stream-of-consciousness journaling; performing exercises, such as listing all the people who have made you crazy within your lifetime and taking yourself out on an "Artist Date" once a week to commune with your inner artist. That last one was the clincher: Any excuse to take myself out for an expensive coffee is my siren song.

Within the first few pages, however, I realized this tome wasn’t exactly speaking my language. “I don’t feel the need to be mired in the blame game,” I complain to my friends when they confess they are mired in crazy making. “Why focus on the negative?” But I stick with it.

As I moved from one week to the next I fulfilled my “obligations” by writing three pages per day in my stream-of-consciousness journal, alternating between the I AM TIRED page with the THIS IS REDICULOUS page and, my personal favorite, I AM NOT SELLING FLOWERS IN AN AIRPORT page.

The book claims that everyone who reads it and works on its premise in earnest will have an “Ah-Ha” moment.

And true enough, mine happened in fewer than 14 days: “I’m not broken; I don’t need fixing. Go sell crazy-makers some place else.”

Nevertheless, I really can’t wait until my husband gets home so I can go and meet myself for coffee.