Sunday, October 31, 2010

Closing our ears to parenting failures

"Did I show you the video?" my husband asks over breakfast the day after The Party.

Video? I stared at him. "Of her dancing," he answered the question my expression asked before my mouth even opened.

He clicks on his phone and holds it out for me to see. The music's volume strains the tiny speakers as the wispy figure of our daughter twirls and gyrates between splashes of strobe lights. She's not afraid to be the only person dancing.

"That's pretty loud," I say sucking my teeth. I should have remembered to bring earplugs.

I smile as I watch the tiny dancer strut her stuff on the dance floor. When I was her age I'd have been standing behind my mother's legs hoping no one would notice me. I never would have braved an empty dance floor.

None of this is new for us, though.

Since she started walking, Ittybit's been making her way to the front of the audience so she can dance with the band. And not just kids' performers, either. The bands she's seen live are accustomed to performing for adult-only crowds.

I hesitated to say this in the context of parenting since the often lamented observation that our children are losing their childhood in some ill-considered rush to attain maturity often pits parents against each other. The last thing I want to do is open a dialog about the rights and wrongs of popular culture or the parenting shortfalls that are pushing civilization toward the brink of extinction.

But it's on my mind and it just slips out.

"Do you think she's dancing inappropriately?"

He is quiet, having thought the same thing and dismissed it. "She's just having fun," he says reassuringly.

She is just doing what she's always done at parties we attend as a family. She loves the music. She loves to dance. The only difference is that she's growing up: She's attending school, choosing clothes that match and asking me to check for smudges on her face before we leave the house. She's just a little girl who knows, by heart, the lyrics of songs I've never heard before.

She's growing up. That's what's makes the off-hand remark "You're going to have to lock her up when she's a teenager" send a slight chill down my spine. I've seen the future. And it's frightening.

Usually I just shrug my shoulders an soldier on. I'm not a mom who covers my kids' eyes even when I probably should. I just don't usually notice age inappropriateness unless the little miss points it out with her own keen powers of observation.

I've become accustomed to trying to explain these awkward moments using terms I think she can understand. And then rephrasing several times until she either gets the gist or gives up in frustration.

"It's the conversation that matters, not the answers," I tell myself. I want to believe that the questions are the solution, not the problem. I tend to think that our answers have a tendency to changing with perspective and experience, each of which takes time.

Time seems to have a way of changing everything without really changing much at all.

For several decades at least, little girls shaking their hips to suggestive music wasn't something folks have had to look too hard to find: Madonna was the mother of all Britneys and Hannah Montanas.

I don't really think scantily-clad celebrities foretell the end of society, yet I can't be entirely sure.

I project my teenage self onto Ittybit's future teenager: "Go Listen to Lawrence Welk ... or what-ever-it-is-you-old-folks-listen-to ... and leave me alone with my Lady Gaga already. Sheesh."

We're not having that exact disagreement yet -- we may not be anywhere near there for all I know — but its time is coming.

My girl is growing up and she won't be mine forever.

That she will choose paths I wouldn't recommend is a certainty. Just as I did. Just as her father did. There will be mistakes and recriminations and justifications for all of us. Hopefully, there will be growth and revelations, too.

Maybe, instead of locking her up, we'll be able to let her go and she'll have the confidence to dance her way back.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

No regrets

I called the number on the invitation fully expecting to extend our regrets for the Saturday afternoon birthday party.

The RSVP date had already passed. I'd waited to reply for no good reason, a combination forgetfulness and dread. It’s just one more thing to put off doing.

Saturday is filled with things to do: Shopping, laundry, cleaning ... a mid-day party would put us over the top and over extended.

Yet, when the birthday boy's mom answered the phone I inexplicably accepted.

It was something about the sound of her voice as she said hello. Something I recognized as joyful curiosity, even though she didn't know me or the reason for my call. Before I knew what was happening I was sizing her up, making imaginary comparisons and liking our differences.

Optimism. I may not come by it naturally, but I like to think I can acquire it if I keep it in proximity.

Of course, making friends seems like just another chore, one that takes effort and skills that have somehow evaporated with your ability to sleep past the crack of dawn. Even if it were easy, you would put up imaginary barriers: “Just because our kids are friends doesn't mean WE have to be,” you tell yourself.

A series of these thoughts worm their way through your rituals:

I will go, but I won't stay. I will stay but I won't chat. I will chat but I won't be chummy.

But before you know it conversations about the weather evolve — in a graduated sequence — into polite comparisons of thoughts on school, teachers, how often you've driven the kids to school after they missed the bus.

She tells me about how many hours she slaved trying to make a pig-shaped cake. I like her immediately when she puts her foot down over the request it have a filling of strawberry jam. She didn't want to hack into the cake and recreate Texas Chainsaw Massacre … Bed time is hard enough as it is.

How can I not admire her for letting her mind go there …

I tell her about making 25 super hero capes out of bath towels the night before my son's third birthday.

She looked at me with the same “You are Crazy” admiration.

Our conversation progresses to the slightly more personal: plots of television programs, what phone carrier, who makes the best pizza. We end up talking about the joys of motherhood, both sincere and satirical. You kvetch about homework, high fructose corn syrup, our inability to make our kids wear socks. Bodily functions become a competitive sport. There's talk of projectile vomit and toilet clogging poop.

Oh yes, we go there. It’s what moms do.

It's all gearing up for the most intimate of mom-bonding moments: Swapping birth stories. Each detail memorized and shared with photographic clarity. Each story seems fascinatingly familiar. We revel in the comparisons: where we were when we went into labor, we recount a formulary of drugs and times they were administered. She pushed for 24 minutes but it felt like 24 hours. I wound up with a labor that didn't progress and a c-section. She thinks I got lucky … even with the surgical scar that healed from the inside out. You think she did … even with the episiotomy and third-degree tear.

By the time the party is waning, the few men in attendance are awkwardly smiling at us from the other side of the room. They are talking about the weather, sports or making shelves with a new band saw they bought off of ebay.

We are undeterred.

We've made elaborate birthday cakes, bath towels super hero capes … and humans. We made humans … who are stuffing their faces with pig shaped cake with a red butter cream center.

As we're leaving she asks if I still have her number. I promise to call and set up a play date.

This has the best party ever, I'm so glad I had no regrets.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Tick Tock

I almost couldn't believe it. But there it was, crawling across the screen of my iPhone, illuminated by new messages in my gmail inbox.

"I hate apple picking," I said, standing up slowly from the couch, keeping my eyes on the tiny tick making its way toward my thumb, which had been hovering over "delete." I blamed the day's outing for its presence. The last tick I found hitched a ride on the dog, causing me to rethink, albeit momentarily, my ardor for household pets.

"Well ... you didn't want a BlackBerry," my husband says smiling at his own joke. "Seriously, though. You have to cut its head off with your fingernail. Those things are nasty."

I take it into the kitchen and practically set the place on fire trying to rid myself of the reason I'd never set foot outdoors if it were a viable option (and one that wouldn't deprive my kids of a relatively normal childhood, fresh air or Vitamin D).

The half bag of hand-picked apples is mocking me from its place on the counter. Little does it know its contents will be peeled and sliced and baked into pies. Probably tomorrow. Or maybe the next day. Because who doesn't like pie? I'm not even going to jest about that possibility.

What's wrong with going to the farmer's market and getting the kind that are already picked? Not that I'd really ask that question aloud. Not only would it be crazy talk, but it would be met with tearful protest from the minions.

There's some magical element embodied in the Pick-Your-Own produce craze that has helped generations of Americans retain the illusion that they are still in touch with their agricultural heritage ... Not that I'm cynical ... Or bitter from the simple fact I can't even grow a cactus. I'm just willing to ride the wave on my hypocritical surfboard.

Feeling the inertia of a sedentary life may be part of it, too. I dread the weight of the bushel bags we buy from the farm stand and the weight of the pressure to fill them up.We paid for a bushel after all. I also dread the task of searching for apples that are still on the trees and not laying in a fragrant but rotting carpet on the ground beneath them.

The weight of the waste weighs on me, too.

This year, to my delight, the orchard had changed its policy. The bags they provided were smaller and the apples were sold by the pound. The pressure to fill to bursting was lifted. Pick-Your-Own for the first time ceased to be the elephant sitting on the outing.

For the first time I could admit that I really do go apple picking for the Rockwell of it.

I go because I have a friend who I don't get to see as often as I'd like. I go because it's become a tradition that is simple and easy and satisfying for the five children we have between us. We go to the same place year after year because watching our children find bliss at the end of a branch while we shoot the breeze is worth its weight in gold.

It's even worth the occasional arachnid on my Apple.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

If you give a sheep a stamp pad ...

7:38 a.m.

The air is crisp and chilly, the kind of weather that begs you to go outdoors at the crack of dawn.

How long has it been since you've watched the sun burn off fog that is rolling over a working farmyard? I'm telling you, no matter how much anyone grumbles or grouches about having to get out of warm beds at the crack of dawn on a weekend morning, it's worth the effort (even if you have to stop the car and retrieve the cell phone you dropped out the window as you were speeding by trying to capture the moment … but I digress).

You've stopped for doughnuts and some warm cider or coffee.

You might still be a little sleepy as you ramble onward toward, say, a somewhat famous sheep farm. You are careful to finish every morsel of the cinnamon-sugar-covered confection before you slog through the barns to take in the sites.

You could even be sleepwalking for all the quaint nostalgia presented by such a family outing.

The whirr-slosh, whirr-slosh sloshing of the milking machines is oddly comforting as you slurp from your paper cup, the coffee finally losing enough heat to drink. You ignore the smell wafting over the lid as you inhale.

The tour is self guided with no signage, but your children are still of the age in which they actually respect that you know everything. They pepper you with questions:

"Why are the sheep lower than the machines?"

"How do they get them in there?"

"Where does the milk go?"

"How do they get them out again?"

You try your best not to disappoint them, but you must admit you have no idea, only a rough guess. You curse that the Smart Phone is on the fritz or doesn't get reception.

The potential for you to be found out as knowing very little about the particulars of the sheep cheese trade, however, is offset by forward movement and fresh sights.

Not that it's rocket science. If you're observant enough, you think you can probably figure it out.

Such as … did you know they dock the tails of sheep? It's not a revelation to rival the decoding of DNA, but there is something uniquely satisfying about noticing a pattern and drawing a conclusion … based upon the obvious: The littlest lambs in the nursery, tails; the oldest, no tails; the middling lambs … rubber bands and tails in various states of atrophy.

"Why do they do that, mom?"

"My guess it is more hygienic for them if their tails aren't caked in … well … poo."

Hey, I'm not squeamish. I read the books by Taro Gomi and Shinta Cho. But again, I digress.

The widdle wambs are cute and all, but you're amazed you've been able to heed the signs forbidding you to touch them. The meter is running out on your ability to police tiny hands.

It's time for a longer walk along the pasture road.

You revel in all the things you and the children have noticed: The solar-powered electric fence, the electric coil at the bottom of the water trough to keep it from turning solid in winter, the gap in the fence where a ewe got separated from the herd. You watch as she finds her way back from being frantic.

And as you turn to leave your husband may notice something strange.

Such as a ram with a nylon harness, and something that looks like a green, felted jewel on his chest.

Maybe he'll joke about what he must have done to deserve such special treatment.

And then your kids will notice all the other sheep behind the fence … must be half of them … with green splashed across their rumps.

They will start to ask you questions.

“What is that for?”

“How did it get there?”

“No, really. How DID it get there?”

And you will find out, on this glorious fall morning at the sheep farm, that in you've also encountered the birds and the bees. And you may wish you hadn't dropped the Smart Phone.

This guy is an inker

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Jumping the Shark

"MOMMMMEEEEEEEEEE!" He appears in the doorway to greet me; he's used to his father picking him up from babysitting. Mommy showing up before 6 p.m. is a special treat.

I bend to gather his things; a backpack, a jacket, his lunchbox, some drawings …

But there wasn't the expected clatter of movement toward the door. There wasn't much sound at all.

The silence was eerie.

Our babysitter stared at me with her head cocked and lips pressed to almost disappearing. Her expression was apologetic and awkward in the way that usually precedes bad news. It reminded me of the time when the kids had accidentally seen a shopping supplement and had used it to create the ultimate Christmas wish list — stuff so rare that Santa himself couldn't procure.

"He knows what he wants to be for Halloween," she tells me sheepishly.

"Didn't you tell her what you wanted to be for Halloween?" she called after my son, who was back in the playroom pretending the toys would reassemble themselves into the boxes from which they came.

More silence.

"That would be a 'No.'"

She speaks to him again, quelling a laugh.

"Go ahead, tell her. … Tell your mom what you want to be for Halloween."

He darts into the room and stands at my feet. His stance is wide and his hands are at his hips.

"I'm going to be a humpback whale," he blurts out proudly.

I just stare at him, blinking. The first year that he has had any interest in dressing up … and he's fishing for something I will never be able to land, no matter how much web surfing I do.

The babysitter looks at me and mouths the words "I'm Sorry."

I turn my attention to her. My eyes narrow as I momentarily wish for a caretaker who would have plopped our children in front of the television set instead of helping them exercise their imaginations.

"Dang you, National Geographic!"

"It was a Diego book," she says protesting the questionable wisdom she sees spinning in my mind. "And Diego was going to be a fruit bat for Halloween not a Humpback whale," she says, chortling sinisterly.

I brighten momentarily. "I have an old shark costume from two years ago that he wouldn't wear … "Maybe if I …"

The babysitter's mouth twists slightly to the side. She sucks air in through her teeth and exhales the words that describe what I already know to be true: "That probably isn't going to work. He knows the difference between a shark and a whale."

I imagine she's picturing me as I am picturing myself in the not-too-distant future: sitting behind the sewing machine, pulling my hair out strand by strand as I try to make a humpback whale out of a backpack and a few old bath towels.

"I may have been able to make a bat costume … but a humpback whale?"

"Well, if any one can do it, you can," she says, adding the perfect backhanded complement: "You are amazing."

She's mocking me, of course. Sweatshop laboring last summer to make a few dozen superhero bath capes for birthday party gift bags doesn't really amount to "amazing." In fact, at the time, I think she referred to me as "insane."

Ideas roll around in my head like square marbles, akwardly and with audible effort.

She pats my back as I turn to leave. "Don't worry. You will think of something."

In that instant, I thought of it: "I know what to do! YOU will convince him to be a fruit bat," I tell her.

She starts blinking.

It was my turn to smile. Sometimes tricks really are treats.