Sunday, April 29, 2012

Words of advice

What would I tell my childhood self?

My awkward pre-teen self?

My newlywed self?

My pregnant self? 

My new mother self?

What would I tell her that would save her even one ounce of pain or regret?

The interwebs has been talking a lot about what sage advice we'd give our youthful selves in the hopes of maybe reducing our mistakes or merely dampening the turmoil they cause us.

Advice that, were we to have really listened, might have made a difference. The goal, I imagine, is to provide a guide for weary, fearful Googlers as they make their way down the path we and generations before us have traveled.

I've thought about this a lot over the years.

Thought about all the things I'd have done differently.

Maturity isn't something you learn exactly. Eventually we understand how to listen to advice that speaks to us, trying our best to ignore advice that wags its finger in our face. But we don't reach our destination until we realize that sometimes the two are interchangeable.

I've loved and loathed so many aspects of each situation I've found myself in that I also find it hard to point to any one of them and lament …

“If somebody had just told me …

“In this precise way …

“So I could understand. 

Life doesn't work that way. It isn't about doing the right thing the first time. It's about finding the right thing for ourselves in our own time.

Maybe we're supposed to have regrets.

One of my most painful regrets as a parent happened in the hospital, after the birth of my daughter, as my newly emptied body floated on a roller coaster of hormones and fear.

She had been with me for nearly 10 months, an active mass of fetal flesh that would change my life forever … and I was afraid to be alone with her. I sent her to the nursery every chance I got. “What if …” became the scariest proposition in my mind.

I'd done all the classes, talked to all the mothers I knew. But experience taught me the most.

Going through it. Waking around the clock. Spit-up. Crying. Dealing with the fear and uncertainty of every decision. Finding a solution after losing count of my failures.

And then having to find another solution when everything changed again.

When my son was born a few years later I was hesitant, too. Late-pregnancy tests showed a medical condition that could cause kidney damage later in life, or even be linked to Down Syndrome.

It was a frightening time filled with feelings that I hadn't done all that I could do. It was a time that I also wondered to myself: "What had I done?"

When he was born healthy but for the wonky kidney, none of it mattered. Only him.

I couldn't let him leave my side. The nurses had to come to find him for weigh-ins and tests. They had to wrestle him from my adoring gaze and serpentine arms. 

So many differences. 

So much guilt.

Nearly five years later I still want to have had a different first experience. I want to have made different choices.
I want to go back and give my daughter all the first-days' love I gave my son.

And there's nothing I could say to myself that would change that desire.

The only thing I can do is move forward and understand that this entire process of living is made up of experiences we'd either rather not have or have had differently.

By constantly looking back, though, don't we just build up a mountain of regret we must overcome?

Sometimes I think we think about what we could have done differently so often, we search for answers so exhaustively, that we forget life is a process built on missteps and failure. We understand ourselves best through experience. We trust ourselves best for having gone through it. We want to spare people something they maybe shouldn’t miss.

Instead of telling my younger self what to do differently, I will whisper to my future self: “Try to relax and enjoy what is now.”

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Simulating bravery

Ittybitty Surfer 

The weekend started off as expected. We had checked-in to the indoor water-slide park and in no time we were all getting soaked: the kids were in Splash-water Heaven and we were in Two-Dollars-And-Fifty-Cents For A Coke From The Vending Machine Hell. 

It was our first time, so we weren't as prepared as we should have been, given the amount of time (during two separate phone calls) I waited on hold for the next available customer service representative.

The descriptions of thrilling rides, drenching playgrounds, surf mountains and lazy rivers circled in the background of my thoughts like water down the drain. The images I wanted swimming around in my cranium were of my children, dashing through sprinklers and screaming down water slides; and me looking up from a trashy novel to wave at their exuberant faces from the safety of a pool chair.

“This was going to be great,” I said over and over again, pushing aside any thoughts of having to wear a bathing suit before the sticky, hot summer tipped the scales into the Not Caring What It Looked Like On Me territory.

Who was I trying to kid?

Of course I was going to look horrible in the swim suit. But more importantly, the kids were going to have fun.

What kid doesn't love spending 48 hours immersed in a slightly warm soup stirred by mechanical currents and flavored by hundreds of perfect strangers, many of them sporting fascinating tattoos?

I mean, who doesn't think being propelled backwards through a pitch-dark tube -- their expensive yet almost inedible lunch creeping back toward its entry orifice -- isn't worth the blockbuster-long line.

At every turn is an event that could change the world, or at the very least pave the way to future Olympic glory. Who's to say the next gold medalist in the 4000 meter freestyle wasn't once one of these hyperactive rug rats filling their mouths with over-chlorinated water and attempting to out-distance the automatic sprayer.

Who in their right mind could resist such a feat?

Not my kids, that's for sure. But I am not in my right mind.

Oh Resortland! … I see you as the swirling cesspool of my immune system's despair. You are the petri dish of my discontent. And yet, we soldier on through scraped knees, abraded toes, slipping here, bruising there.

Yet somehow the glaze I've painted over this pre-packaged recreation can't distort the power super-chlorinated water has on the soul.

I learned this lesson as Ittybit waited on line for hours to ride a few waves.

At first it seemed impossible. Each rider got ample time to test their skills. Once they found themselves either barrel-rolled into the crease or wash-cycled back to where they started, they got a second chance before being sent back to the end of the line.

I looked at my watch, rolled my eyes and gave a heavy sigh: This was going to take forever.

But forever soon turned into the luxury of seeing time stand still. Each rider ahead of Ittybit taught me something about perception and perseverance.

The sporty-looking guy was all confidence and bravado until he couldn't steady the board.

His girlfriend, who'd never attempted surfing before, steadied herself easily and nearly made it to standing on her first try.

The boy who wanted to quit when the water washed him back to the start with a sudden and uncontrollable force got back on the board. His brother, who high-fived him as they switched places, followed in his path exactly, both rides.

And their mom smiled all the way through her own two wobbly rides. What a trooper.

My daughter was next.

She hesitated. She required a steadying hand from the attendant, who held on to the board until she was ready to be released into the oncoming waves.

For the minute or so she was able to hold on to her balance she looked like a natural surfer. Seconds later the board skittered from underneath her, a gush of water rolled her backwards and halfway up the ramp. Her second turn was a fast-forward version of the first.

When it was over she rushed toward me wearing the biggest smile I'd ever seen.

She was ready for another go. I just shook my head and smiled. Where did she come by this bravery? Certainly not from me. I felt fear just watching her bide time.

But the more I witnessed, the less I worried about the price of frankfurters or whether I resembled one stuffed into a bathing suit. And the more I hoped some of her bravery would rub off. Someday I'd like to get the nerve up to hurl myself against a wall of water, smiling all the way as my daughter (and virtually everyone in the water park) watches me conquer the waves.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Hand-me-down fakery

All of a sudden things don't seem to fit quite right.

Pants ride high. Shoes are tight. Belly buttons are peeking over waistbands.

All the clothes that were swimming on them last summer, it has become apparent, won't likely float them through another season.

And it's not just clothes.

So many ideas that once seemed set in stone are slowly turning to rubber.

The tooth fairy tripped up, pilfering a bill from my pocketbook that had been marked and duly noted by its newly toothless recipient.

The Easter Bunny doltishly stored his chocolate likenesses in the car, where they were easily detected by those who wouldn't sit still in their booster seats.

“Here's what I think,” ittybit said to the air, turning on heel to face me and choosing her words with the precision of a deft prosecutor as if giving her closing argument: “I think that YOU are the Easter Bunny … and the Tooth Fairy … and quite possibly Santa Claus. What do you have to say for yourself?”

I bristled under the glare of her accusatory spotlight. All of a sudden all that had once glittered in manufactured magic was exposed as a lie made of sinister intent.

Her eyes were asking: “What could you have gained from lying to a child.”

And at that moment I had to wonder the same.

What would have been the harm in quietly acknowledging milestones without introducing imaginary beings who possess gossamer wings, floppy ears or eight tiny reindeer?

“SHHHHHHHHHHHH,” I hiss. “Your brother can hear us. … Do you really want the truth?”

She nods her head, she's ready. It's time.

Time for the speech I've practiced in my head since the moment I started planting phony evidence (at least thrice-yearly) of mythical beings sneaking around our house as we sleep.

“Technically it's true that your father and I have done much of the shopping and placement of holiday gifts. And, essentially, it's true that much of what you can't see requires varying amounts of faith and, now, skepticism.

But there comes a time when the simple answer … perhaps even the least satisfying answer … is the answer that you can't ignore.

“And yet as you come to accept this disappointment, you also have to come to terms with the idea that the truth isn't really that simple, either.

“This magic wasn't sculpted out of lies and wishful thinking. It was crafted from all the things we try to cultivate in ourselves: generosity, feeling special in the world and that the unimaginable is possible.”

“The Easter Bunny may not be a furry,bow-tied basket delivery animal in the you-might-actually-get-a-glimpse-of-him-on-the-lawn-one-fine-Easter-morning sense, but that doesn't mean the imagination behind such an idea is valueless.

“It's not a lie … it's a parable. It's not history it's poetry.”

My words had come tumbling out in her direction willy-nilly like Super Balls. I could see in her expression that some of them were sailing right over her head as others were breaking her heart.

Nevertheless, her eyes were dry and placid. I wasn't telling her anything she hadn't already figured out on her own.

But the question that remains has to do with how to proceed.

The Champ grabs the not-so-cleverly-hidden chocolate bunny and holds it up. “What is this doing here?” he wonders. “Why would the Easter Bunny put chocolate in my mom's car?”

Before I could open my mouth to throw a bunch of wordy Super Balls his way, she intervened.

“The bunny is just getting old and senile. Probably hid it here last year and forgot all about it. I wouldn't eat that if I were you.”

He smiles a devilish grin and unwraps a section of milk chocolate ear. She rolls her eyes as he bites down.

She' may have outgrown these particular clothes, but she can admit they are still a pretty good fit for her brother.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Scientific discoveries

“I've been waiting for this for nine years,” says The Champ, whom last I checked, had yet to celebrate his fifth year on Earth.


He'd wrestled the box from my kung fu grip and was trying to pry it open with a plastic butter knife he'd gotten from the kitchen.

For the bargain price of $29.99 the science kit came complete with beakers, test tubes, safety goggles, magnifying glass, a tweezer, an eyedropper, and instructions for simple experiments we could have Googled for free.

Not that I mind paying a premium to excite imagination on occasion. I just don't relish the idea of a mess.

But I knew with his speed and determination it would be a matter of minutes before he'd torn into the slick cardboard box and littered the living room with an array of curious new plastic chew toys for the dog.

I also knew if that happened the potential for tears would be 100 percent since the potential for replacement stood at 0 percent. The only conclusion I could draw was that it would be impossible to predict when the tears would end given the range. I had to act quickly in order to shape the research.

“WAIT! There are some ground rules,” I yelled, slipping the box from his eager hands and holding it above my head as he jumped all around me as if on springs.

In order to be a real scientist, you must first establish a laboratory and keep it free of contaminates.”

“Good idea! What's a contaminant?”

“Debris or dirt that could damage your findings.”

“But what if I'm doing my speriments on dirt?”

“Then you'll have to have your laboratory outside, I just vacuumed.”

His sister just stared at me with her glancing look of disapproval. “You said that his lab should be free of contaminants ...”

“I know what I said. But what I mean is that I want to keep scientific evidence from getting splattered on the walls or ground into the couch.”

“Oh ….” she rolls her eyes in an inaudible assumption that I have no hope on that front.

As usual, she is right.

The phone rings, and within minutes Ittybit has proof of her theory. I leave the room to answer and he collects a box of food coloring and a gallon of water, bespattering a bit of each as he makes his way into his “cleanroom.”
I will feign surprise as I reconstruct the scene.

Why would he have any interest in cleaning pennies with lemon juice, baking soda and vinegar? He tosses the card. BUGS? He's seen bugs already and he'd prefer not to get a load of them under the magnifying glass. They look scarier up close and 10X their original size.

But mixing magical potions with food color, compost and pencil shavings? That sounds like very important work for a some-day-to-be nine-year-old.

He was ready for me when I returned from my minutes-long phone call.


The declaration told me two things I could have easily guessed a week ago as I was plugging the numbers of my credit card into a secure web portal: He was working on his reputation as mad scientist; and no amount of vacuuming would salvage the cleanroom.

“Let's try that again, buddy … scientists are nicer to their mothers.”

“Sorry, Mom. Could you PLEASE leave? I have some sperimenting to do.”

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Walking on eggs

I should have known by the barrier that this was going to end badly. The tape keeping the throng of sugar-crazed toddlers at bay read 'CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS.' Parents all around us were laying out strategies for their kids so complex I expected at any moment a mom or dad would pull a chalkboard out of a stroller and diagram the game plans with arrows, Xs and Os. 
This was an egg hunt of epic proportions, and we were out of our league.”

That is how I remember the first town-sponsored egg hunt my daughter ever attended. It was chaotic and eerily similar to the event Colorado Springs recently cancelled because of some bad eggs – parents. Ours had all the earmarks: anxious parents, hundreds of kids, thousands of eggs in plain sight and a sufficient amount of technical glitches to cause pockets of confusion throughout the crowd.

It's enough to make you think the seed for the “The Hunger Games” were planted on a field littered with plastic eggs.

Oh, I jest.

Others don't, apparently.

Where I see tiny gladiators fighting house cats for balls of fluff, they see helicopter parents ruining a time-tested rite of passage.

And while some parenting experts worry the modern Easter Bunny won't provide the necessary hard-knock reminder that life isn't fair . … I just want to go home, fill plastic eggs with Cheerios and hide them under the shrubs.

Stupid, fluffy Easter Bunny. Making people think this Easter Egg hunting thing is just a bit of sweetness, not a Battle Royale where two-year-olds must learn they don't always get a happy ending … or an egg.

It's survival of the fittest.

But parents stepping in seems to cross a line. We all know how that usually ends. It's not as if parents haven't been making Little League games and Girl Scout meetings unbearable for generations.

Mob mentality can make the best of intentions come undone.

Our own Egg Hunt education started uneventfully enough: getting to the event early, finding where we were supposed to stand and waiting patiently for further instructions. As we stood behind the tape, holding our girl back from snitching an egg before it was time, a man with a megaphone informed us they would be starting with the youngest group soon. Then he asked for parents who would volunteer to guard the borders so there would be eggs enough for the next horde of hunters.

A quick game of Rock, Paper, Scissor dictated I would volunteer to go into the field of battle. My husband thought it would entice our daughter to run out to me, picking up eggs as she skipped along, no doubt, to an internal soundtrack of “Ode to Joy.”

My inner mother was screaming for me to tell him she would need help not just incentive. But I didn't say anything. We didn't want to cross the line. So instead I watched in mini-horror as the signal was thrown and hundreds of tots broke rank. Our daughter was frozen. She clung tightly to her father's stain-proof pants, afraid to join the fray.

In seconds all the eggs were gone. More nimble arms had swept away all the colored orbs. In the melee I had forgotten my job and let dozens of kids into the next territory. By all accounts it was a dismal failure.

When it was over our daughter realized her basket was empty, and began to cry. Talk about heartbreaking. A toddler at an Easter Egg hunt without a single egg. Even more heartbreaking was, as the crowd thinned out, no one seemed to notice the weeping tot and her useless parents.

We stood there feeling helpless and wondering why we hadn't just brought some eggs to plant in case of such an emergency. A neighbor came over to see about the tears. Her daughter had found four eggs, two of which she happily shared with our daughter.

It wasn't the end of the world after all. On the contrary, it was the start of a lovely friendship and the impetus for planning to survive the next year's hunt if, by some tragic twist of fate, the Easter Bunny didn't see fit to cancel.

It was either that or pray for rain.