Sunday, August 31, 2008

Signs of the time: Now where did my baby go?

All of a sudden my baby disappeared.

Yesterday he was comfortably nestled in my arms, happy to see the world from the safety of my embrace, cooing and chortling and staring at his hands, and today … well? I’m not sure where he’ll be.

He’s on the move.

I might find him playing in the dog’s water bowl or trying to climb up to the sink or trying to drop any number of small items that he shouldn’t have anyway down the heating vent in the floor. It’s not out of the ordinary that as I try and put dishes in the dishwasher or clear the table for dinner, he might be emptying the lower kitchen shelves of their contents. I’ll catch up with him when I follow the trail of granola bars and macaroni and cheese boxes into his sister’s room, where she will undoubtedly be screaming for his eviction.

“He’s just a baby,” I say, trying to defuse the situation.

“Well, he’s wrecking everything.”

I’ll drag him away. I’ll put him down near a basket of toys that should keep him busy. Yet, like a mechanized toy that’s been fully wound, without missing a beat he’ll be heading off in whatever direction he’s least welcome to go.

If his father is trying to work at his desk in peace, the baby will go and empty a box of receipts or unravel a roll of stamps or have a three-way conference call with a client.

If the dog is trying to eat her meager bowl of kibble, the baby will be there to dole it out, piece by torturous piece.

If his sister is trying to color in her coloring book, he will be there to take sample tastes of crayons or to spirit them away altogether, never to be seen again.

It’s highly probable that when I try to fold laundry in the living room, he’ll make his way into the bathroom with a few choice pieces of clothing and shove them in the toilet. I can’t believe we still forget to put the seat down. I also can’t believe that one day I’ll be glad when he learns how to flush.

He’s not interested in correction. He’s still a baby. “Uh-oh!” and “No!” have come to mean “This is a fun game” when he sees the big people heading his way. The couch isn’t a place he’s forbidden to climb on so much as it’s a receptacle large enough to hide books or boxer shorts or the television’s remote control.

He’s not interested in learning sign language, either.

He’s got no use for clapping hands together to ask for “more,” or gesture with a two-handed wiping motion to tell us he’s all done. He’s not going to rub his open hand over his chest to say “please,” or put his hand in front of his mouth and lower it to say “thank you.”

Who’s got time for that? Especially when you can point at exactly what you want and yell “DAT” at the highest volume your tiny vocal chords will allow.

He knows that the people trying to get him to communicate with sign language will eventually give it up and just hand over whatever “DAT” is.

Many a time he’s been able to finagle the exact contraband he’s after:

“Uhm … Who gave the baby the cookie?”
“I did.”
“Well, because he was SCREAMING.”
“And that worked?”
“Like a charm.”
“Good to know.”

Of course, occasionally there is something he wants that will elude us big people. In those instances it’s entirely likely he’ll break down and use one of the signs we’ve been trying to teach him.

Just the other day, as we stood in line at the crowded coffee shop, he was no longer satisfied with chocolate chip cookies he was holding tightly in his hand. He didn’t want to let them go but he didn’t want to eat them, and all the screaming in the world wasn’t making me understand his plight. But I could see his eyes light up when he realized he had the power to make his desires known. He stopped wriggling and thrust out his hand, opening and closing his fist like he was milking a cow.

“What does he want,” asked the woman handing me my change and my cup of hazelnut decaf (black).

I thought for a second about pretending not to know, but didn’t get a chance.

“He wants to nurse,” said his sister. “He’s a baby, even though he’s kind of a big kid, too.”

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Burning the candlestick at both ends

On a particularly sullen-looking day during our recent vacation in Maine I had a bright idea.

What? I get bright ideas sometimes, don’t laugh.

It came about as I was taking a poll of what each member of the extended family wanted to do during our seven-day reunion.

The clan was sitting around on its duffs waiting for Maine’s state bird – The Mosquito – to vamoose. The sun was no where to be found. The mosquitoes were staying.

“Let’s go bowling,” I said, exuberantly.

Could you hear the groans from New York? No? Well, I was certain you could.

“Bowling? Bowling! Are you crazy?” my husband replied, the volume and pitch of his voice illustrating that there was no way on Earth the loud, smoke-filled lanes of his imagination were going to cut it for family fun. Not when he could be napping, anyway.

My imagination, on the other hand, drew pictures of Lavern and Shirley, sipping brewskis and pitching strikes and spares with The Big Ragu.

Nostalgia. Sure I was worried the kids wouldn’t really be able to participate fully; I pictured hulking bowling balls accidentally pitched through plate glass windows or dropped on tender piggy toes.

But I pressed on.

When we reached the alley, seven in tow, we soon found out how different New England bowling is from our ten-pin experiences.

“Oh. ... It’s candlestick bowling,” I chirp with glee after we paid the lady at the counter for the games and shoe rentals. “That’s CandlePIN bowling,” she good-naturedly corrects.

She must have thought me from mars when I asked for a three-part repetition of the rules.

What? You get THREE chances per frame instead of TWO?
What? Players get to shoot TWO frames per turn instead of ONE?
Really? The computer does the scoring for us? COOL.

Candlepin bowling, as it is really called, is unique to New England and maritime provinces in Canada. It was first played in Worcester, Mass. in 1880, 15 years before the sport was refined to the more common 10-pin standard. The differences (beside the rules of play and the shape of the pins) are smaller-sized balls (sans holes) that can be held in one’s hand, and the fact that the dead pins don’t get cleared from the alley between throws.

All of this means two things: It’s technically easier to play for all ages and abilities but more challenging to play well.

Once we had our shoes on we were ready to play.

So there we were. Standing in our adjoining alley’s sizing each other up.

TEAM ONE comprised Ittybit, her cousin and her father.
TEAM TWO was composed of myself, my sister-in-law and my brother-in-law.
The champ was a floater, getting handed back and fourth across the ball dispenser.

I felt good about our team’s chances: Collectively we are taller. I also feel confident because Ittybit can’t seem to wrap her head around the idea of wearing someone else’s shoes.

“Why do I have to wear socks?”

“Well, because we have to wear special shoes that other people have worn, too.”

“But why can’t I wear my own shoes.”

“Because the wood on the lanes is special and it has to be protected from outside dirt.”

“But inside dirt is ok?”

“Don’t worry about the dirt. Just remember that we’re taking turns.”

“OK … “ she says with uncertainty.

But I couldn’t have been more wrong about an easy victory.

In just a few frames my confidence proved overblown and her abilities blossomed.

She even developed a style …

She selected her ball from the dispenser and hop-skipped her way to the line. She swayed from side to side before she triangulated an underhand pitch from between her straddled legs. After the ball had left her hands and bounced down the alleyway, she did a little spin and sashayed back to the dispenser, where she draped herself over the hood like a fem fetal, waiting for the wood to fall dead.

I couldn’t help but laugh and the series of moves, the fluidity of which more resembled body Chinese than body English.

But I wasn’t laughing when she got a strike.

“Mom? Lets just stay here and go bowling every day.”

“If only we could. I could use the practice.”

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Thinking about divorce

“I’ve been thinking about divorce a lot lately.”

I could see the statement’s effect when my friend’s smile fell right off her face.

“No. No. Not me. ... I’m not thinking about divorce for me,” I stammer, realizing that it’s this exact scenario – the surprise factor - that I am turning over and over in my own mind.

Some friends of ours announced they are splitting up.

Outwardly they were the perfect couple. Well, maybe not perfect, but definitely not a pairing anyone would doom to failure. They just drifted apart.

They have three kids; one in high school, one in grammar school and one smack dab in the middle.

They have a nice house, a comfortable living and shared interests.

When you first find out your friends are considering separating, it is often a shock.

Aside from fleeting moments of frustration, they seemed happy.

Yet, they’ve drifted apart. There is unhappiness. There is tension. They want to try their lives separately.

Isn’t it natural to look at yourself in this mirror of friendship?

‘We seem happy.’
‘We have stress and tension and a tendency to meander into solitude.’
‘We have arguments about everything … and nothing.
‘Is it only a matter of time?’
‘Could this be us one day?’

You shake your head. ‘No. Not us. This is not going to happen to us. We are different.’

‘We love each other.’
‘We can work it out.’
‘Our frustrations are fleeting.’
‘There’s too much at stake.’

Yet, somehow, it’s already happened to us.

It’s our circle – our community -- that’s getting broken up, too. The guys we play cards with and the women with whom we swap recipes. The divide happens there, as well.

We look at each other and try and tease out a turning point; a place where the road started to get bumpy -- the kids, the job, the familiarity? Nothing we could change really, except in our attitude.

And who’s got the patience for that? Not her. Not him. What about you?

There will be anger and resentment for a while. Somebody will be the ‘bad guy’ until it’s the other person’s turn. The circle of friends twittering on about news and details will result in its rings expanding as if in a pond.

No matter how much you think you can remain neutral you can’t. Eventually you find yourself on one side or another.

My husband’s been down this road before with his parents. They split up when he was young. He understands what it means for the kids. I can’t only imagine. My parents are still together. Both of us want to be supportive.

But there’s only so much we can do. We can offer our condolences, and our heartfelt sadness. We can offer an ear and a shoulder to lean on. We can offer a room for the night or a hundred nights. We can hope.

The story’s not entirely finished -- there will be an attempt at reconciliation; there will be counseling, there will be efforts to address the problems as they become defined.

It’s not over. There is hope.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Reaching inside for answers to worries on the surface

The day had been ordinary, we all had our work cut out for us: employment responsibilities for the adults, play for the children.

Nothing was unusual. Everyone seemed happy.

But the sun is waning. The witching hours are setting in. And as night closes in, strange things start to happen.

Sudden fears pop up. Angry accusations. Every step lands in a potential minefield.
She is crying in the backseat of the car as we start the 11-mile commute home. A few minutes earlier she had been happy, bubbly; singing nonsense songs to make her brother laugh.

All of that was gone now; clouded over by the pitfalls of growing up.

"I'm so, so, so, so sad," she cries, and breaks into incoherent sobs.

I can hear the fatigue of a long day in her voice.

I am tired, too. I am at the edge where I would trade all the happiness in the world for a 20-minute commute filled with comfortable silence. I am at the very place where losing my patience meets screaming my head off.

But all of that building rage disappears the instant she finishes her complaint:
"I am not pretty. My hair isn't pretty. My clothes aren't pretty. I try and I try and I try but I am never going to be pretty. I am always just going to be me."

I do what every parent does when words their kids say rip at their hearts.

I search what's left of my mind to come up at a loss: Where. Is. This. Coming. From?
How could she think she's not pretty?

In an instant, I jump to cruel world of summer camp.

"Where did you get that from? Who told you that? Did someone hurt your feelings at camp?"

No, she assures me. No one stomped on her tiny little ego. Again it's JUST her.
I am taken off guard by the outburst, but when I think about how to answer I realize I shouldn't be surprised.

Hasn't she been trying to look different lately? Wearing dresses? Wanting her hair to look just so? She is watching and comparing and accounting for every slight, every stern look.

She tells me more about the problem's genesis: The kids, from weeks ago, who wouldn't play with her. They all had pretty clothes and pretty hair. That must have been the difference, she reasons. She wasn't pretty enough.

I feel like I'm trapped in a cave.

Of course I want her to grow up unaffected by societal pressure. I absolutely want her to be comfortable in her own skin, whether it's beautiful or otherwise. I know all about beauty being skin deep and in the eye of the beholder and underneath. But I don't want to tell her that beauty is unimportant, especially when it clearly holds importance to her at this moment in time.

I've thought about what I would say. I've pondered the possibilities. I've wondered if by telling our smart girls that wanting beauty is petty and shameful we haven't completed a circle begun when our grandmothers we're told they should be pretty and obedient. It's a circle that skirts the truth of the matter.

Yet I also thought I had more time to ease my way into the pool from the shallows.
Instead I dive into the deep end: I tell her that what she feels in normal; that we all feel unpopular and unattractive at times but that often these feelings, while real, aren't always true. We compare ourselves to ideals that can't always be met, and we're also not always the best judges of ourselves. ... I don't know how much she understands. She is, after all, only four.

But she accuses me of not understanding: "You are a grownup. You aren't like me. You don't know."

"You are right I am nothing like you. But I was a child once, only I never had the gumption you have. I would never have gone up to a stranger and asked them to play with me. I never would have had the guts to try. Your father even talks about how amazed he is with your courage. You are not like me. You are better.

"This is all the tricky stuff of growing up, you know. ... We humans are silly. Sometimes we belly up to the things that scare us and give them a good old poke in the nose, other times we take those same fears and give them a pat on the back.
"It's really hard to figure out which to do when. Even when you are a grownup, it's difficult."

I look back into the rearview mirror, and see her blotchy face, calm and serene. I know from her expression that the conversation won't continue. She's not convinced, she's just moved on to another topic.

"Can we have ice cream when we get home?

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Two chairs, no waiting at the DIY clip shop

See if this sounds familiar: Parents are sitting on opposite ends of the couch, doing whatever it is parents do when their kids are quietly engrossed in play.

For my husband it means mucking around on his new iPhone, for me it means surfing the good old Interwebs.

Some people call it absentee parenting.

I call it parallel play.

Whatever you call it, for all intents and purposes the cats are away so the mice still play.

Imagine my surprise when I look up to find Ittybit, hitherto using a pair of scissors to render small pieces of paper even smaller, fluffing a rather large pile hair in the middle of the coffee table.

I sat there dumbfounded as her arms -- scissors in hand -- lift again toward her head.

“Um. … You’re cutting your hair,” I blurt out a little too sharply.

She stops mid-snip as if awakened from a dream and starts to cry.

I instantly feel horrible. I hadn’t meant to yell. I wasn’t angry I was just surprised. Her hair has always been a bit of a battleground. She never wants to get her haircut. In fact, she hardly ever wants to comb it or wash it or put it in cute little pig tails.

I take the sheers away and pick her up. I try to get her to stop crying, telling her it’s not bad. Hair is just hair and will grow back. In fact, she’s done a better job with shaping it than I ever have in the two years I’ve been trimming a little here and there to keep it out of her eyes.

I tell her it looks pretty, which I don’t really think was a lie.

My husband looks at me worriedly.

“It looks like a mullet,” he whispers. “What if the kids make fun of her at camp? She’s going to have to get that fixed.”

“When I was a kid we’d call this a shag.”

But I have to admit, with a square patch of pink scalp showing through in the back and triangular patch showing through in the front, a trip to the hairdresser would be unavoidable.

I had to phone my mother. She’ll get a kick out of this:

“Hi mom. Guess what? Ittybit got her first real haircut today at the salon.

“Yeah, the husband took her.

“Oh … because, you know, she cut it herself and looked a little too much like Billy Ray Cyrus.

“No. no! I was sitting right next to her, paying no attention, whatsoever.

“…. Go ahead laugh. It is kind of funny.”

But the DIY haircut is more than merely humorous, it’s a rite of passage for some kids.

My mom told me about how when she was about Ittybit’s age, she and a little boy in her neighborhood exchanged haircuts. She remembered snipping away at his hair carefully, trying to keep it straight. “His haircut looked pretty good but mine … well it was awful.”

Culling from my own experience, I would have thought she’d decide one (if not all) of her dolls needed cosmetic attention. I didn’t really expect my kid to play hairdresser on herself.

Apparently, the folks who fix such hairy situations don’t always see this play out this way either.

“Oh, honey? Do you have an older brother?”


“Oh. We’ll, we usually see kids experimenting with haircuts on their younger brothers and sisters.”

“I DO have a little brother,” she replies excitedly.

I guess we know what to expect next.