Sunday, February 24, 2008

Just another suburban dwelling illness

When I was growing up I heard the term "Cabin Fever" a lot at this time of year.

Usually it was someone trying to describe why the Kool-Aid mom was in a funk.

I always wondered why they called it that: CABIN FEVER. It sounded so ... rustic; so quaint.

I suppose it must have something to do with a simpler time when log homes dotted the landscape and a quick trip to the corner store took four days and a team of horses (uphill, both ways of course). Once the snow came, going out into the world just wasn’t an option.

But how, one might wonder, has such a quaint term survived as equine ingenuity evolved into combustion engines, and cabins in the woods became a horseshoe drive of split-level ranches tucked neatly into bedroom communities?

We have all manner of technologically-enhanced gadgets that make withstanding winter's worst effortless. Aside from the elemental snow, ice and cold, there's really nothing that society hasn't tamed in winter.

For example, there's really no such thing as seasonal produce. Want fresh strawberries in the dead of winter? Someone's growing them somewhere. They're never more than a truck ride away.

There's so much to do out in the world during all seasons, especially with our modern all-wheel-drive and all-hours-merchants, and yet Cabin Fever persists. How is that possible you ask?

You might try and get scientific; point to the sky and start talking about the length of the day or the angle of the sun. You might say it's the light we lack.

But you'd be wrong.

Because as sure as I am about the ennui of winter, I am also positively positive I know what REALLY causes cabin fever.


Children cause cabin fever.

You thought their germy little mitts spread only the common cold and minor cases of typhoid, didn't you?

As I look at my firstborn, dressed in a tutu and cleats as she dusts the house with her cache of tiny toys, it becomes apparent how my sloth has settled in firmer with each passing year since her arrival.

"Let's go for a walk," I say, amplifying manufactured excitement. "We'll get all dressed up, put The Champ into your old bear suit, and we'll walk into the village for some cocoa!"

"No. It's too cold. We can do that when it's spring," she answers.

Children, with their slow-motivating natures and their inability to withstand any one activity for more than the time it takes the commercial to change – not to mention the inevitable happenstance that once you get them dressed in their infinite layers of socks and thermals and snow pants and winter jackets and five-fingered mittens and hats and scarves, someone is going to have to PEE - are festering Petri dishes of the bacillus that causes the mind-wasting illness, Cabin Fever.

Eventually I end up grateful she’s not the outdoors type. By February's end the idea of corralling two kids in the muck and slop for a wintry beverage she won't drink anyway, not to mention having to keep track of hats and gloves and boots on the trek over to the shop, makes me an immovable object, staking claim to my favorite end of the couch nearest the woodstove.
I am grateful, yet guilty.

While others are getting out into the world - breathing in really cold air and exercising their minds and bodies - we are listening to bad television and trashing the house. The most exercise I get in any given week is from climbing the stairs to wash the previous week’s worth of laundry.

It's pathetic.

That's why I decided this was the weekend to turn off the TV, forget the linens and head for the slopes.

That's right, folks. We're going skiing.

(OK ... You can stop laughing now.)

They have cabins on the mountain right? I bet they have fireplaces, too.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Take the ‘sex’ out of it and there’s nothing

I might as well title this one "Many words strung together in a way that will one day — if they ever read this — turn my children a deep shade of red."

This one's all about s-e-x.

I'll wait if you want to turn the page to some place nice, with cute pictures of kids or cuddly puppies. Might I suggest Page 2? There's always good news there.

Any stragglers? Last chance. OK. Moving on.

As I was driving to work recently the local public radio station was airing an interview with Laura Sessions Stepp, a journalist with The Washington Post and author of "Unhooked," a new book characterizing a "new trend" of casual sex and its impact – mostly negative – on women.

Apparently, the new sex trend is called "HOOKING UP," and is a term defined as any type of sexual encounter – from kissing to intercourse – between uncommitted partners.

Young people move in posses and engage in trysts with whomever strikes their fancy. And then they move along to someone else. No strings attached. Dating is passé.

I listened with interest to the author's musings about how dating has gone by the wayside. How some sex acts are so casual as to be considered no more intimate than a handshake. And while she acknowledged that not everything about causal sex spelled doom for the women engaging in the practice, there wasn’t a lot to redeem it as a long-term solution to our country’s seemingly collective inability to live in co-habitation harmony.

It seemed relatively straightforward stuff. Parents are going to be horrified that their daughters are willy-nilly engaging in the unthinkable with someone unspeakable and caring nothing of the consequences. We can all collectively wring our hands and bemoan the sliding of society further into the cesspool.

But I was kind of surprised to learn she was getting some flack for coming to the conclusion — ultimately — that casual sex is damaging to women.

Some critics are castigating the author for trying to reintroduce sexual shame into the feminine perspective, and returning young women to the old "Who'd want to buy the cow ..." life and love philosophy.

An argument to be made for "hooking up," claims that it allows women to be in greater control of their sexual encounters without the pitfalls of having to extract themselves from damaging or abusive relationships. If there are no relationships there are just two ships passing in the night.

But as all this is rattling around in my sleep-deprived head is a flash of momentary understanding: Take the S-E-X out of the equation and there is nothing.
Maybe this is why our social-political landscape seems in such turmoil. We NEVER have to connect our minds with anyone else's — ever.

Eventually we will never have to even SPEAK to another human being.

Currently we don't have to talk to them peripherally as we get our groceries or complain about errors on our bills. Soon, it would seem, we won't have to deal with these pesky people in our personal lives either. We don't have to make concessions and we don't learn how to compromise. In fact compromise has become a dirty word.

Maybe that's too harsh. It's not as if unfettered carnal pleasures are the ONLY things going on the mind of today's young women. There are all sorts of strong women looking to do some greater good.

They are also looking for true love; a phenomenon that turns every parent — even the most conservative — into the proverbial, somewhat maligned "feminist."

In the interview Sessions Stepp spoke about a commencement speech by a high school principal, where she told the young women in the graduating class to focus on their educations, focus on their careers and then (and only then) focus on finding "Mr. Right."

The author said she found the statement one of the "saddest," because she feels it's only natural for people to want love and companionship. To deny such is denying a huge part of the human experience.

It is here I think I most agree. Keeping our children from getting hurt only prevents our children from learning how to recover.

When you have children – daughters especially – I think you have to come to terms with not only human sexuality's moral code but also its physical eventuality as certain as death and taxes.

Sex is, after all, how we get more little people populating the planet, and the activity continues before and beyond its biological purpose.

Yet the idea that women should be on equal terms with men by way of promiscuity seems just as ridiculous to me as advocating abstinence at all costs.

I suppose there's not much to worry about, though. Because if the abstinence-only philosophy doesn't really work past the age of 20, my guess is the play-the-field philosophy gets old, too. Once the barn door opens, that horse is running in the direction of out, right?

Oh, what do I know? After all, 60 is supposed to the new 40 ... and 40 is the new 25 ... There’s no rush right?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Laughing in the face of fear

We now refer to our son as 'Our glowing boy.'

We mean it literally.

There's something darkly humorous about taking something really scary – something called a nuclear test – and stripping it down to its essential form.

This is the gist: The kind people with name tags clipped to their scrubs at a local hospital strapped my youngest (the boy with the previously-mentioned wonky kidney) down in a little boat that floats underneath a table-sized camera and injected him with a radioactive drug to watch how his innards work.

The only thing I can do is laugh. I mean what else is a parent to do?

I could cry and wring my hands and carry on … and I’m not ashamed to admit that in the weeks leading up to this relatively routine (albeit somewhat invasive) examination I did a little of each. But I know that's not going to help a situation we can't avoid.

Everything that makes you a human – not just a mother – kicks in when you watch your kids endure hardships.

Here’s this person you love — arguably looking a bit silly because he has NO IDEA how much unpleasantness awaits him — and there you are, powerless.

As we wait for our test, every passerby mentions how handsome the Champ is; how smiley and expressive. They practically hurt themselves rubbernecking in the hallways to get a better look at his sweet face.

You wonder how, with all this reassurance there can be any doubt of his health.

He babbles and laughs in their direction; even tries to hold hands with the nurse who in just a minute will install an intravenous line. But then comes the pressure, and the restrictive holding and the distress of knowing something has changed: It’s not all that comfortable anymore. Even before the prick of the needle the happy, smiling, giggling boy is gone.

This is the hard part for mothers.

And yet, we hear our babies cry all the time. I know the Tired Cry and the Hungry Cry and the Pain Cry. I’ve even had copious amounts of experience ignoring the shrieks of my Unhappy Traveler Cry all the way to Maine and back.

Standing there in that clinical setting I knew his burst of wet emotion was heading out of the “This Hurts” neighborhood and into the wide open spaces of "I Don't Like Being Held Here Like This ... You Better Stop This Nonsense RIGHT NOW!"

The technician plays a lullaby loudly enough to catch his attention over all the noise he’s already making. Before long he's sound asleep, tucked inside the scanner as we watch, transfixed, while his organs glow yellow on a computer screen.
We cock our heads as the blobs on the screen "light up."

I note how freakishly large one kidney looks compared with the other, and the technician breaks her silence to tell me you can’t really go by that ... most folks aren't symmetrical.

"You'd be surprised how different normal kidneys can seem," she tells me.

My husband wonders what the strange blob to the left of his arm is as he looks at the screen ... he's afraid maybe his son has miraculously grown another organ in his upper thigh.

"Oh, that's just the tubing and such," replies the technician. "It's just lighting up as the radioactive materials pass through."

Suddenly, I feel a little like Homer Simpson: 'Mmmmmm, radioactive' ... tossing the word about in my head as if it were cotton candy. 'Mmmmm, toxic.'

Sure, I witnessed the technician carry the lead box in gloved hands and place it on the table; I saw the lead-lined syringe that contained the dose of nuclear substance, but I never really let the reality that THEY ARE PUTTING THAT STUFF DIRECTLY INTO MY KID really sink in.

For the rest of the test, a tiring 50 minutes, I made light of the situation. I joked about my "glowing boy" — complete with wink, wink, nod, nod sound effects — and tried to force my fear into its own little cylinder in hopes of flushing it away.

Finally it was over."That's it," the technician told our son. "You're all done."

And as I picked him up and put on a fresh diaper she reassured me of the safety of the isotope.

"It will be completely gone from his body by tomorrow this time."

"That's great," I say, turning to my husband. "Maybe this weekend we can take a little road trip to Nevada; that way we can bury his diapers from the next 24 hours in the desert."

Sunday, February 03, 2008

When the cat's away the mice get even

It's that time of year again: I become a widow for a very long weekend.

As the husband packs a bag with a toothbrush, some toothpaste, all of his thermal underclothes and six different blends of whiskey and heads "home" to Maine and his three best boyfriends, I get ready to break all the rules of parenting we have so carefully mapped out.

As he gets ready to sail down the slopes of Sunday River, I plan on feeding Ittybit cake and cookies for her Sunday breakfast and letting her camp out on his side of the bed for the full four days, leaving snack crumbs and tiny toys behind as souvenirs.

Bedtime this weekend will be whenever, bath time will include 20 extra minutes of soap-wasting fun and she will have full and unfettered control of the remote for her Saturday morning cartoons. "This Old House" can fall into the basement for all I care, we will be checking out what's new at the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, thank-you-very-much.

If I have any energy leftover all of the clothes he hordes but never wears will be heading to Good Will or the landfill.

This is payback.

For the longest time I fought tooth and nail against the husband’s old-boy network.

It's not that I don't adore his friends. They are possibly the most fun folks I've ever had the pleasure to meet. But that's not to say I want to be left alone to twiddle my thumbs, divert temper tantrums and clean the house for 52 hours while he gets four restaurant meals, three lift tickets and all the banter he wants unrelated to Barney.

Let's face it, no matter whether their plans are to hike in the White Mountains, kayak down the Saco River or ski downhill at Mount Abrams, the reality is the weekend always winds up being four days of sitting around a fire of some sort, drinking single malts and making all manner of revolting sounds.

I used to rail against the boys-only weekend because it seemed so antiquated, not to mention unfair.

Women hardly ever hand their kids off to their husbands and disappear for four days of drunken debauchery (let alone sober shopping). The ‘boys will be boys’ response he gave me just made me want to hurl boiling oil in his direction.

Oh, I could wax moral on all the ills of this gender segregation. I could lay down a trowel full of "What is this teaching our daughter?" as I build a wall of jealousy around this yearly ritual. But I'd be missing the forest for all the trees.
Because the truth is I get it.

This men-will-be-boys stuff is as simple as falling off a log (and I'm sure they've each done that in their otherwise harmlessly inebriate states): They enjoy each other’s company and they can't really be themselves – in all their vapidness – with the wives watching.

A part of me is envious that he has that ability that his friends have stayed close enough and interested enough to plan such elaborate ways to drink themselves silly and talk about nothing in person. But such antics are not likely going to satisfy friends I know.

Oh, sure, we pretend to be the sad put-upon wives who are holding down the fort while our clueless housemates — the ones with the Y chromosome — plod along forgetting to wring out the kitchen sponge or replace the toilet paper roll. But I think in reality we are just happy to plod along after them and kvetch.

Seriously, sitting out in the cold, around a campfire, having spitting competitions really doesn't sound like something I could do for four minutes, let alone four days.

But throwing away all of his torn up shirts (he claims he will use for rags when they are no longer good) and NOT having to be the mediator of television viewing wars fought between a 38-year-old and a 4-year-old is my own little reward.