Sunday, March 31, 2013

Mama bird

I opened my mouth wide.

All the way across the room a dentist inserted a mirror and a hook-pronged instrument into my son's bird-like orifice.

Self consciously, I closed my mouth, relaxed my jaw and silently willed The Champ to stop squirming. I pressed a foot on an imaginary brake. Instead, he just wriggled in a different direction.

There are so many times I wish I could take the place of my children, and this is one of those occasions: white-knuckling it through another pediatric dental visit.

It never gets any easier.

So many latex-covered fingers potentially wagging my way. Does he brush twice a day? Is he flossing daily? How about sweets?

So many questions. So many accusations.

But I'm the only one asking the questions. I'm the only one pointing fingers.

And sitting in the corner of the room, waiting for the official results, I have answered my own questions with unfiltered angst and absolutely no medical or dental training whatsoever. By the time the doctor dictates her findings to her assistant in the language of dentistry – a language in which I am not fluent -- I have already convinced myself The Champ will need fillings, a root canal and, potentially, dentures by the time he's six.

His sister, we already know because she was squirming around in the same chair just minutes before, will need to have four of her permanent teeth extracted to make room for four others that have no place to erupt.

I want to erupt.

Their cousins' parents – genetically blessed as they are – will be spending their orthodontics budget on college tuition.

We will be spending our retirement on straighter teeth. We know about that, however. We are prepared. It's the unknown that tends to throw me for loops, things that show up between cleanings.

“He looks fine,” the dentist says, negating my suspicions and adding that the Tooth Fairy will have to be notified because the boy has, “count-em, three” wiggly teeth.

I let go of my breath.

She smiled in my direction. It wouldn't surprise me if her internal anxiety meter proved sharper than her most pointy of tools. I'd even be willing to bet she can detect tense expressions and diminished respirations from three exam rooms away.

But from where I still sit across the room, I can also see it's Ittybit's turn to be tense.

She has so many questions: “Will it hurt? How do they get the teeth out? Will I feel it when it's happening? Will it hurt after it's over? Will I look funny?”

The dentist takes her time answering each one. She is technical, thorough and kind. Neither of us are worried as she leaves the room, headed toward her next appointment.

I don't even tense as the receptionist hands me the bill for that day's services and an estimated cost for the extractions, which will take place in a month's time.

But I can see alarm bells ringing in Ittybit's eyes as she looks over the paperwork and notices the yellow-highlighted figure.

“That's a lot of money,” she stammers, mouth all agape.

I shrug and sigh: “It is what it is. There are certain things you just have to grin and bear.”

“Now close your mouth, dear. I got this.”

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Vicious circle

Rape culture.

I didn't think much about the term until Steubenville.

How could we – the United States – in the 21st century have a culture of rape?

But I have two extremely powerful reasons to think about rape culture now: I have a daughter, and I have a son.

And their futures are equally important to me.

Like any mother, I can't help but read stories like the ones coming from Ohio through the filter of motherhood.

Because more than I don't ever want to be summoned to the hospital … or a police station … I don't want my children to have an unhappy life. And an unhappy life often walks hand-in-hand with causing others to suffer misery and pain.

A culture of rape is also a culture of apathy; a culture of substance abuse; a culture of small, meaningless lives.

It astounds me that other mothers don't see it that way.

That's the future I see for boys in Steubenville if they don't stand up and hold themselves accountable.

That's the future I see for the bystanders, those who harassed the victim and those who tried to cover it up if they can't see it for themselves.

Stories like this, however, make me fear we are already lost.

How can a person be a year or two away from emancipation and not know undressing and inserting an appendage into the body of an unconscious girl is a crime?

How can that situation be seen as anything other than rape?

How can their parents and teachers protect them? How can the community not be appalled?

It's more than stupidity. In this town, at least, it seemed to be a norm.

It makes me think we have never gone beyond the idea that women are ultimately responsible for the prevention of rape.

What we wear; How we wear our hair; What we drink; With whom we choose to socialize; How we travel. ... Each a factor considered even if off the record.

Better to be safe than sorry we always tell ourselves.

And it's true. I will tell my daughter that it's smart to be aware of her surroundings. To travel in pairs, especially at night. I will tell her to consider her hairstyle, how pony tails can be grabbed by an assailant more easily than a bun.
But none of those things makes a crime someone else commits her fault.

By the same token, I don't verily buy into the notion that we've failed at teaching men not to rape.

Men – in general -- are not the mindless, hormone-driven neanderthals these stories have made them seem.

In addition to No meaning No, I will teach my son that only Yes means Yes. And I hope I can convince him that feeling awkward is a small price to pay for getting it right.

We, as parents, educators and citizens, have to do a better job of understanding the importance of valuing not just ourselves and our children, but everyone around us, as well. We have to do a better job of recognizing when those lessons aren't being learned … or aren't being taught. We also have to understand that we, ourselves, might not have the right answer when we try to protect our kids from themselves.

We should all want more for our kids than vicious circles.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Boy things

They're "ACTION FIGURES," the champ chided emphatically. "NOT DOLLS!"

He was correcting me. I had used the offensive four-letter word after stepping on one of his smaller “action figures,” and, hopping around the living room floor, used the name in vain while openly wishing the dog would chew them all to plastic bits.

While he had no trouble ignoring the latter part of the rant, “Doll,” however, could not stand.

"Then pick up your ACTION FIGURES and put them away before someone (and I meant the someone who works the stove and reads books at bedtime) gets maimed."

He just harrumphed and headed toward his toys with sloth-like speed.


Not that I would call it a “boy thing.”

Honestly, I don't see that much difference between the way the boy plays and the way the girl does. They both sing songs as they move toys around in their imaginary worlds. They both shriek and act like their fingernails are being ripped out one-by-one whenever the other touches their stuff.

It's normal … ish.

The key difference seems to be in terminology.

In Boyland, dolls, as we've already learned, are "action figures."

Doll houses are "secret lairs."

Doll clothes are disguises.

His dudes surf, they rescue damsels in moderate distress, and, at times, are known to be the villains, dangling the damsels (once gallantly rescued) over precarious places … like the dog's water bowl or the downstairs loo.

But that's another story. One that involves Battles Royale with a sister.

You know, the usual.

Word wars not withstanding, it didn't really seem out of the ordinary when The Champ asked me to make him an “action figure” like the “rag doll” I made for his sister.

Only his doll had to be a boy doll.

With boy doll parts.

He beamed up at me as I stood there blinking.

"That means he wants his doll to have a penis," Ittybit translated.

I knew that. I was just stunned into silence.

What can of worms would this open? I can just imagine the look on his grandmother's face.

What would we call it?




Of course, Ittybit was laughing at me. Over-thinking as usual.

"It's not that difficult," she said as she brushed past me and sat at the sewing machine. She took a scrap of fabric, folded it twice and ran it under the presser foot like a professional. A few passes of the machine and she was done.

She turned her handiwork inside out and presented it to me.

I had to admit, it looked like … well … a private part.

She showed it to her brother, who was delighted.

"Are you going to put it on my doll," he asked, unable to contain his excitement. “Can you do it now? “I'm going to name him CHRIS!”

"Not before I have clothes ready. Chris has to be appropriately dressed in public places. Just like you can't go to school nude, he can't take off his clothes unless he's taking a bath or getting ready for bed.”

"Okay, okay, okay … How long is that going to take?"

"Have patience. This is delicate work. I don't want to rush it and make a mistake."

"Please hurry! Chris REALLY needs to go to the baffroom, and I don't want him to have an accident."

Turns out, making a doll anatomically correct is a simple operation. Just a few stitches.

A more difficult task is convincing the Champ that boxers are better than briefs … at least they are easier to sew.

And most difficult of all? The look on grandma's face when The Champ introduced Chris at the family reunion and gave her a sneak peek.

But that's another story.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

It's all downhill from here

We must have been a sight: the two of us, standing at the top of the mountain looking downward. Tiny specks of people below us were rippling from side to side as they descended in a seemingly effortless swagger.

I imagined we'd swagger, too. Eventually.

We had been on the bunny slope for hours practicing wedge and gliding turns. We had moved over to a larger hill, waited in line for the surface lift, asked nervous questions of the lift's operator about exiting, and glided gently to the top without ever once thinking about the whole point of the process.

The boy asked the question I myself hadn't been wondering until that precise moment:

“Mommy? How do we get down?”

I took a deep breath and said: “we have to ski,” in a voice infinitely more calm and collected than the one in my head, which, was now screaming at me in no uncertain terms: You. Are. A. Horrible. Mother. You. Should. Not. Be. Here.

The voice had been paying attention, even if I had not.

The voice had been listening as we tried to ride the surface lift in tandem. It would have stopped and made sure the kid was on and not yelled back: “Just ride up on your own. You can do it!”

Of course, the voice inside my head also heard the “thwank” of the tow bar bouncing off of the kid's helmet
as it careened and jounced forward when I tried to dismount. But it never said a word. It just flinched.

See, the voice in my head knew that the mother a child needs in situations like these ought to be the Mama Bear-type, who has more experience than a five-year-old with a one-hour lesson and a single run down the mountain. This kid needed someone who, at the very least, could keep up. And sadly, the child standing at the top of the hill waiting for such a mother got me instead.

Skiing three times during the course of four decades doesn't exactly make me Picabo Street. It more likely makes me a candidate for a Boy Scout to try and help cross a street.

The voice in my head would have tried to explain all of that, but it knew I wouldn't listen. I was too busy replaying seemingly obvious facts in a perpetual loop:

I am at a ski hill with my family.

We came here on purpose with aid of a GPS.

We ALL have gear.

Everyone else is off using theirs.

This is what we're supposed to be doing, aren't we?

How hard can this be?

The voice in my head had fallen silent, probably murmuring 'idiot' under its breath.

My son pushed off first. I followed.

He fell a lot, tiny accidents for which I was grateful. It gave me a chance to keep up as we made our way down the mountain. Slow and relatively easy.

“We made it!” he hooted as we swished toward the place we started at the foot of the hill. He got back in line for the lift.

I relaxed a little as the lift operator smiled and asked how it went, showing only slight surprise that we made it back without bodily harm.

As we chugged up the mountain again, I heard nothing but the crunching of snow underneath our skis and sweep of tree limbs in the wind. My inner voice had stopped dogging me altogether. I imagined it was at peace with my abilities. But, as the cable pulled me closer to the top, I realized it was more likely that my inner voice had stayed back with the ski lift operator, chortling and taking bets on whether or not I'd need a medic.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Social creatures

I know that look. The practiced smile, the sparkling eyes …

She's standing there … waiting for me.

A hundred prayers have silently passed her lips as she licks them in anticipation of my answer.

She's holding out her little window to the world; a touch screen smudged with streaks of bright orange cheese dust, the exact width of her lipgloss-tinged fingertips. “Can I go there and play?” she asks. “Pretty please?”

“Happy Street,” shines out at me from the backlight. Animated town homes, cottages, rocket ship condos … each more fantastical than the next … dot the landscape in a single, neat row.

Her friend – a real-life child with an active avatar – is already ensconced in this small-screen place, building a world of her own out of programed pixel palaces. The pitch sounds rehearsed: “We can build our own towns. We can visit each other's neighborhoods. I can send her messages. … It will be like she lives next door.”

“See? Look here … pandas walk along the street,” she exclaims, pointing at a black and white splotch parading back and forth, robotically, as if it were an irresistible selling point.

“It's free,” she sings.

She knows I will relent. I thrust out my arm and take the device.

How could I say no to the possibility of possessing a panda?

“Far be it from me to keep you from dressing up endangered species and feeding them ice cream from a virtual vending truck.”

I type out the access code -- a sequence of letters and numbers Ittybit pretends she doesn't know so that I might cling to the fallacy that I am more than merely a figurehead in a parliamentary form of government most people refer to as "parenting."
I hand the device back to her. She's in.

It all vaguely reminds me of a moment, long ago, when I ventured into a remarkable world (albeit a real one) in a six-floor walk-up in Alphabet City.

This might be a story as old as time:

Girl and her friends go to the Big City; girls meet boy at a club, Boy asks girls to see his etchings, which are just around the corner in a two-bedroom apartment he shares with seven other people.

He hadn't invited us upstairs to see his “etchings,” if that's what you we're thinking. No, we were going off to see a “cat the size of a Thanksgiving turkey.”

We weighed the risks and potential morning headlines: “Man, with aid of seven roommates, murders tourists stupid enough to leave bar with stranger.”

Thinking that was entirely too clunky a sentence to make it into a newspaper, we followed him down the street and up six flights of stairs into one of the most organized apartments I had ever (and probably will ever) seen in my lifetime.

Bookcases lined the walls, floor to ceiling and comprised the dividers that made up the tidy bedroom cubicles. Seven tiny rooms filled with all manner of things.

Our guide made his own bedroom under the kitchen sink.

It was a spectacular sight. As was his cat, which truly looked like a fattened turkey in a grey, tabby-fur coat.

And there was more. … The man who lived under a sink had a record collection that rivaled no other. He pulled from thin air crates and crates of vinyl records and treated us to two of his most prized recordings: A vintage Canary Training album, which, when played repeated bird songs in an infernal loop; and BF Goodrich's 1958 Sales Meeting, a song-and-dance extravaganza that sounded as if it may have rivaled a Ziegfeld show.

My friend and I left a short while later and headed for the train; unscathed, having seen the wonders of an impossibly large cat, a business-conference as a musical sideshow and how to design an apartment that accommodates eight comfortably ... in Tetris.

I blinked as the sounds of Ittybit's video game and its tinny, robotic music brought me back to the present.

She is busy designing her own world in a virtual place where people can live in windmills or rocket ships or under their kitchen sinks if they want to. Eventually, she'll probably venture out to look for laughing cats, silly music videos, or just a tiny little room where she can chat.

It occurs to me in this moment, the world really hasn't changed all that much.