Sunday, September 28, 2014

Dating pool

The boy looked up at me with sheepish hope. His voice was so low I could hardly hear. I asked him to repeat the words again.

“Mom, will you tell MaryJane Smithdoe that I want her to look at my painting.”

Hands jammed in his pockets, lips wrapped over his teeth, he shifted from one foot to the other as he looked down at the floor.

I still didn't really understand.

He was four at the time, and in preschool, and in absolute awe of one girl in particular. A raven-haired beauty whose interest included pigtails, sparkly shoes and playing Grocery Store with friends.

I knew he was smitten. When he said her name he seemed to sing it, elongating it with a few extra syllables.

She, of course, didn't know he existed. Because she was four, too.

Despite my apprehension, and being the dutiful mother that I am, I walked over to the girl and told her that my son was hoping she would be so kind as to look at a painting he made at the easel. (I successfully stopped myself from using the word etching.)

She agreed and followed me to the art room of the preschool.

As he stood some distance away, concealed behind a doorframe, she giggled at the sight of a smiling sun dripping its yellow tempera rays onto a wobbly tricolor rainbow. And then she skipped away without another word.

I held my breath. What was he expecting?

He … was ... ecstatic! She had looked at his painting. She had smiled. And he never had to speak to her at all.

I was a little less ecstatic. Not only did I feel the need to worry that my son might grow up to be a stalker, I had already proven to be an enabler.

It's harmless, right?

Probably even hereditary.

It wasn't too long ago … during the awkward 90s … that I thought dating in my mind would be the best way to have a relationship.

I would pick someone, call him my “boyfriend,” and then never tell the person we were “going out.”

It really was perfect. There was no awkwardness, no arguments, and no worries about what to wear to a romantic dinner … because there would be no romantic dinners.

But that's beside the point.

The point was that when I decided we were through as an imaginary couple, the relationship just ended. No bad feelings.

Oh, how very Lars Lindstrom of me, right?

Which leads me to my budding adolescent. Who, it turns out, has independently found my secret to dating at the ripe old age of 10.

Wait! Back up the truck! Dating? At 10?

I didn't believe it either, so I asked around. Turns out there is a thriving and intricate web of elementary school love connections that work like MatchDotCom without the DotCom.

My fifth-grader explained it to me, with the proviso that I never divulge names.

Turns out, students at this age spend an inordinate amount of their free time trying to establish would-be infatuations.

“If A likes B and C likes D, but A likes D and F is jealous, you might have a mess on your hands she explains. It could lead to d-r-a-m-a.”

The more I dug, the more I understood that “going out” in the eyes of fifth graders is as far away from the common understanding of the term “dating” as humanly possible.

“It works like this: Since everyone is talking about who likes whom, if you tell people who you really like it can get awkward. Dating, let's face it, is awkward. Anyway, they find out who likes you and you decided if you like them too and then you are going out.”

I know …

The explanation doesn't really clear things up.

“So … What do you do when you 'go out'?”


Well … do you hold hands? Do you pass notes?”

“Nope. Not at all. In fact, we just stop talking to each other altogether. It's really easier that way for everyone.”

It all makes perfect sense to me. After all, half of the fluid sloshing around in her DNA pool is mine.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Time and space

She sat across from me at the dining room table, sipping coffee.

Exactly thirty-five minutes and thirty-seven seconds earlier we had kept pace along a three-mile loop through the rainy streets outside my front door. Ordinarily I would have run the course alone or not at all.

This was a treat. Another mother, with an hour of time to spare between trips to the bus stop, was actually in my house. Drinking coffee ... after a run.

Inwardly, I was giddy. Outwardly, I was stone.

I didn't want to seem too eager. (I'd already made that mistake with the Jehovah's Witnesses, who now visit once a month.)

The last thing I wanted to do was scare her off. Aside from my new Witness friends, it had been ages since I'd had another adult human to talk with during the day. Besides the brief pleasantries with the man selling stamps at the post office and the how-do-you-dos with the ladies behind the glass at the bank, I barely used my voice between the hours of 8 and 3.

But there she was. My friend. The newest member of the team we hadn't expected to join.

The unemployed.

No. That's not the right word. That word implies something else. Something negative. Something tinged with desperation. Something put upon us like a weight.

The stay-at-home moms. The housewives. Chief cook and bottle washers.

Even worse. We are none of those things … and yet, we are all of them.

We hate labels and stereotypes, so we try to coin new ones.

Domestic goddesses. Cough, sputter, retch.

We join a gym. We go at off-peak hours and get our pick of the machines.

We talk about play dates, school lunches and bake sales. We complain about how hard it is to lose those extra pounds as we hike side-by-side on the treadmills.

Oh sure, we call them dreadmills, but we secretly think they are the highlight of our day.

A day that increasingly revolves around prioritizing the things we had previously deemed the least of our worries.

Sorry, can't today. I'd planned to dust the ceiling fans and mop the floors.”

When someone asks us what we do, we hesitate for a second. … We make it known that we work at something that doesn't always pay us in money, and we imply that we work harder than ever before. Few of us feel like we actually do.

Some of us are grateful, some of us feel guilty.

I ask her to decide which category she falls into without thinking.

So, how's it going?”

It's all so new right now, but I'm really enjoying it.”

I still can't wrap my head around it,” I tell her, wishing I could just smile and nod.

But it's all I think about, despite the three-years' worth of practice.

Suddenly, there doesn't seem to be enough hours in the day for laundry and dishes and homework and chores. Doctors' appointments, dance lessons, soccer practice and the part-time-job you took just to keep in practice.

And then there are the what-ifs …

What if he loses his job?

What if he dies?

What happens then?

I could tell from her expression that I was talking aloud.

I apologize profusely.

I know more than anyone that doesn't have to be this way. That dividing up into opposing teams isn't really a good way to play this game. Title or no title. Label or no label, we haven't become different people. We just have different schedules.

Another cup of coffee?”

Sure, what-the-heck. Laundry can wait.”

The hour stretches into two. We still have time.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

One last ride

She sidled up to the chipmunk, as she had so many times over the last 10 seasons, and twisted around to look up. Her squint-eyed expression, a beacon of hoping beyond hope.

“Well? Am I there?”

“Sadly, my friend, you are not.”

It was June and we were at Hoffman's Playland. Ittybit was two inches shy of the line separating her from her intentioned ride – The Bumper Cars.

There are many things I wish I could give my children, but average height is genetically beyond my ability to provide. The chipmunk and I never saw eye-to-eye.

Deflated, but not destroyed, she skipped away from the only shady area in the place and headed for The Scrambler. That's her favorite, anyway: a pair of sardine cans attached to an arm that shuffles between four other cans until its passengers turn green.

She can't get enough.

Sad is the word that best describes emotions surrounding today's closing of this tea-cup-sized fun park after 62 years in business.

Although it had evolved over the years – growing from its original two mechanical rides to include more than 20 rides and attractions – Hoffman's Playland never really changed. It offered a warm pocket of nostalgia in a garment that you thought you had outgrown.

That's how it felt, to me anyway, the first time we brought Ittybit to Hoffman's when she was a tot.
I hadn't thought about the place since my parents brought me there. So it came as a surprise how perfectly perfectly it still fit. Not only could I scrunch in beside her on the Rock, Spin & Roll (a ride we had mistakenly referred to as the Spinning Dog Dishes), all 200-pounds of my husband could float high above the park in the Balloon Flight, as well.

I would have called it magical, too, had it not been for a different kind of revelation that Hoffman's made perfectly clear a few rides later. ...

Somewhere in the vastness of time – exactly where between the last ride of an intricate loop-the-loop roller coaster in college, and the first moment Hoffman's carousel started to turn while I held onto my infant equestrian, is unclear – I had become a victim of motion sickness.

As soon as the horizon shifted and the air pressure changed, my stomach started to churn.
Oh sure, the Tilt-a-Whirl seemed tame for the first few swings, but by the end of the ride I was regretting my morning coffee and not interested in lunch at all.

Eventually, my husband and I would wind up playing Rock, Paper, Scissors to see which one of us would have to go on the Rock, Spin & Roll.

The season I was pregnant, My father even gallantly offered to go on the bigger rides that his tiny granddaughter preferred. I'll never forget how scared I was as the two of them spun about seemingly miles overhead. I was left on the ground, finally reading the caution sign beyond “Pregnant Women” to where it had mentioned “Heart Patients.”

We all make mistakes.

People think the age difference between our children was planned for lofty, developmental purposes. But really we just wanted her to be tall enough to accompany her brother on the big-kid rides at Hoffman's.

This year, it paid off.

We visited the park one last time in September to say our goodbyes.

We wound around the park, taking turns on all their favorite rides. I stood at the fence holding a camera as they waited in line.

Finally, we made our way to the Bumper Cars. This time when she stood next to the chipmunk, he was the bearer of good news. Over the summer, she had grown the two necessary inches.

But at the gate, another sign delivered the bad news: The ride was closed.

She was deflated, but not destroyed. Our family tradition of height-restriction disappointments will continue.

We took one last spin on the Iron Railroad, thanked Hoffman's for a perfect childhood experience, and called it the end of an era.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Back to school ... part 2

The first day of school is an event celebrated annually by most American families as if it were a delicate skirmish that hinges on properly fitted battle armor.

Not the least of which include sneakers that make a person run farther, faster and well, entirely different altogether but still give you room to grow.

It is a complicated strategy.

We begin with frenzied shopping sprees during the last weeks of summer – we buy notebooks and binders and clothes our kids will outgrow by Christmas – and then move on toward the reintroduction of age-appropriate bedtimes, usually 12 to 14 hours before the first school bell rings.

The middle is stuffed with things savvy parents will have accomplished in the wee hours of the night before: Bags packed. Clothes set out. Lunches made. Missives read. Notes written.

But we are not savvy parents. We are sloppy parents. Sloppy parents who point fingers in each other's direction. We let accusations fly as we fly about by the seat of our pants trying to gather supplies that have been strewn everywhere, but in the backpacks where they belong. ... Are the clothes even washed? Wait! I thought they were buying lunch. … What do you mean she's not on the bus list?

Eventually, the skirmish dies down and a tenuous truce is reached.

It all ends with the modern equivalent of a ticker-tape parade – the rapid-fire updating of social media networks with a vast array of cell-phone bus-stop portraits as great yellow behemoths come grinding out of their own summer slumber to the edge of our driveways where they swallow our kids up whole.

Oh sure …

Technically, the day isn't over at 8:30 in the morning when your last Primary School Cherub hauls their over-stuffed backpacks up the three steps, past a smiling driver and through a gauntlet of other similarly armored children screaming from either side of the aisle.

In fact … for you the day is really just starting.

How fast can you get to where ever it is you have to be? How much can you get done before you have to turn around and get home? Maybe … just maybe ... you can get to the Post Office AND the bank before they close. Dare to dream, dear parent. Dare to dream.

Now that summer has ended, time will move in blocks of errands rather than minutes and seconds.
But you knew that … The Handbook that came with your version of child said something about the time-space disconnect on Page Six.

Never you mind that … The kids seem to know how to slow it down. Savor it.

For weeks, they've been modeling their new clothes and planning their wardrobes. She breaks out her jewelry and carefully drapes it over outfits already assigned hangers. He starts to break in his new sneakers. Careful not to scuff the surfaces.

Neither are settled.

I always wonder what they will choose to make their first-day statements. Last year she wore a three-quarter jacket with tights over jean shorts. She looked like Cindy Lauper met Mary Tyler Moore in a dark closet.

He wore shorts, a fleece, fingerless gloves a skullcap and aviator shades. When he hoisted himself onto the bus, he looked like a tiny Tom Cruise in “Top Gun.”

I love this day. For me, it's like Halloween and Christmas all rolled into one.

At the end of the driveway my daughter twirls contentedly in her first-day regalia. The outfit has evolved during the last seven days from a stylish twinset top and black petal pushers to a navy striped tunic, last year's denim leggings, and a moth-eaten beanie cap swiped from her father's winter duds. If she is anxious about meeting a new teacher and making new friends, she doesn't let on.

My son, too, ditched his first choice of togs – a faux leather jacket and skin-tight jeans – and settled on meeting his new teacher wearing his old favorites, a comfy old t-shirt and hand-me-down basketball shorts.

“Hey, little man. Why aren't you wearing any of your new school clothes?”

“Oh … it's the first day. I just wanted to go as myself.”