Standing ’round the sink

A few months ago, J.C. Little, The Animated Woman, wrote a post about how much her family has bonded over washing dishes together.

And I thought briefly about washing the dishes with my kids. J.C. made it sound so tactile and engaging, so warm and sudsy. And I recalled doing dishes with my stepmom, talking.

But I also remembered reaching into the cool-ish, dirty water to fish out whatever was on the bottom: slime, forks, or a sharp knife.
*Shudder*
No thank you, J.C.

This is totally me and my two kids dressed in matching aprons and laughing as we wash perfectly clean dishes in a perfectly clean kitchen. What? You don't know.

This is totally me and my two kids dressed in matching aprons and laughing as we wash perfectly clean dishes in a perfectly clean kitchen.
What?! You don’t know.

But her post gave me an idea. Six days before I read that lovely post about family bonding over dishes, my sometimes-washer-of-dishes moved to another house. So I’d been doing 100% more dishes by myself for a few days. And I didn’t like it. Not that washing dishes is a big deal. But when you have extremely limited time, most of which is crammed with paid and unpaid activities promised to someone else, washing dishes is a big ol’ “seriously, would paper plates really ruin the world if I used them just until I submit the next big project?” tirade of justifications and pouts while scraping preschooler rejects into the compost.

So the next morning I asked my eight-year-old Peanut to empty the dishwasher, please. He shrugged and emptied the whole thing. It was the first time I’d asked him to this, but he’s an enormously bright boy and member of the family and has thus experienced the acquisition of clean dishes from cupboards. He could therefore extrapolate the placement of clean dishes in the same cupboards. [May that be proof, some day, when his partner claims he 'doesn't know where anything goes.'] The next time I asked, four-year-old Butter clamored to help. He’s big on helping. And they got along, doing the job I rather hate, while I made dinner near them.

We were all in the kitchen, excited, mobile, talking, and thanking each other for various tasks that helped the family. Peanut even devised the most brilliant plan, ever: put all the forks in one compartment of the silverware basket, spoons in another, and so on. That way, he pointed out, when we empty we can grab a whole section and just dump it into the right section of the drawer. I marveled at his genius. And I refrained from telling him I’d heard of this maniacally organized plan for dishwasher loading but could never bring myself to spend that much energy on organization of dirty silverware. So we ooh and aah over the boy’s idea, we listen to his argument about the finer points of his plan, and we do it his way. And now he thinks he’s the King of the family.

Wait a minute, here, J.C.! Turns out this trick works even if you *have* a dishwasher!

I’d always said before I had kids that I’d have them do their share of chores. But as their dad and I bickered about who did the dishes, it never occurred to us to farm out that job. We bickered about how and when to put the laundry away, too. So I decided to J.C. this activity, too. After the dishes and breakfast, entering the second week of our new family arrangement, I plopped a basket of laundry on the boys’ floor and asked them to find their stuff and put it away.

Again with the together and the talking and the many hands making light work.

It’s been almost three months. And my kids are emptying and filling the dishwasher every day. And putting away every load of laundry.

And they’re doing it together, while I do something else domestic in the same room. Usually cooking or sweeping. Man, I love me some sweeping. Watch everything that’s wrong with your life gather in a pile, nudge it onto a dustpan, and throw it away forever. Then do it again in three hours because, geez, do these kids grow sand and dirt and…what is that, a twig?…out of their socks?

This is not my child. Or my sand. Or my broom. Or my background. Do you know how bad stock photos of sweeping are? Shameful.

This is not my child. Or my sand. Or my broom. Or my background. Do you know how bad stock photos of sweeping are? Shameful.

Forcing my kids Working together to do chores feels good. It feels even better to get the work done more quickly and with less fighting.

Thanks, J.C.
I owe you one!

Trust

My sweet little Butterbean loves playing the game of trust. He stands about two feet away, makes his body rigid, and falls toward me. I catch him. He never doubts and he never falters. Neither do I.

This is the game we’re forced to play in team-building excursions, and most people can’t trust enough to just fall. We tend to take a step to catch ourselves, unwilling to trust someone else with our bodily safety.

But my son is willing. He trusts implicitly. And it’s thrilling for him, to know that I’ll get him, to know that it feels safe no matter what his brain tells him about gravity and danger.

four years ago, when Butterbean sought for anything to grab

four years ago, when Butterbean sought for anything to grab and I knew he was smart for grabbing me

And I realize, as we laugh and hug and play again and again, that this trust is the heartstopping part of parenting. He trusts me completely. And that feels intensely heavy, physically. That feels as though his little life and heart and future well-being follow me every minute of the day. Fragile. Important.

I’ve always taken parenting very, very seriously. We have fun, but I drive myself to distraction thinking of all the way to be right, to be ideal, to be precisely what the kids need. Because their trust is everything. It really is.

And my ridiculously lofty expectations mean that I fail. Every day.

“No matter. Fail again. Fail better.”

I try to not obsess with my constant failure. With my less-than-ness. I try to live in the moment and parent my best and do what feels right and true. Because that’s all I can do.

Last week, rushing to make Peanut’s lunch to get him to camp, I checked his backpack to find his missing lunchbox. It was there, mostly empty, festering in smooshing-proximity to a wet towel and wet swimsuit.

“Dude?” I said to him as I shook them all out and prepared to handle them. My job, when I’m home: handling. “It really helps when you take this out of your backpack after you get home. Hang it up, it dries. Leave it stuffed in a closed backpack, it stays cold and wet. And it likely feels better to put on dry rather than damp and clammy.”

He looked at me from across the living room, pausing in his enormously important task of the morning, something I couldn’t possibly understand because I’m mother and therefore flawed and ridiculous and wonderful but lame. He cocked his head.

“Look,” he said. “I’ll try. I hear you. But after a long day of playing, I’m just not sure I can remember. I’ll try, Mom. But I can’t promise anything.”

And I bifurcated. One half my mind thought, “well, for an eight year old that was ridiculously articulate, reasoned, and calm.” The other thought, “Geez, is that the way I talk to him? With weighty sighs at how ludicrous is this life and our expectations? Do I reason and articulate like that? Has the Beckett of ‘Fail again. Fail better’ so informing my demeanor that shrugging with impossibility has become the family motto?”

I don’t know. I know that split, the “wow you’re great humans,” and “wow, I’m ruining you” split applies to both of them. And the difference between them. The reasoned refusal to hang a wet towel and the joyful, trusting fall into my arms. The split mind happens whether I catch the trusting, falling child or whether I explain, rationally and dispassionately, why I dropped him.

I have to stop this post now before I want more babies. Look at that face!

I have to stop this post now before I want more babies. Look at that face!

 

Don’t make me pull this car over

Hi, there. I know I’m parked out in front of your house and it’s creeping you out. I’m not getting out of the car, I’m not looking around, I’m not doing something obvious like making a call or eating lunch.

And I’m not acknowledging the kids in the backseat.

I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable. Sincerely. I’d park somewhere else if I could.

But my kids were calling each other stupid, so I pulled over. I’ve absolutely had it with namecalling, and your front yard is where I’m making my final stand. Well, probably not final. Honestly, only, like, second. And there will be dozens more just this week, I’m sure. So let’s call it penultimate. Because most people don’t know what that means. I’m making my penultimate stand before you, your family, and the neighbors. There will be no more “stupid” in my family.

I tell them what they practice is what they become. I tell them that calling names hurts peoples’ hearts. And I tell them to choose a kind word rather than a hurtful word.

But they think stupid is funny. There’s power in stupid. There’s power in making someone feel small. That’s not the power I want them to cultivate. I wouldn’t mind them cultivating sports or engineering or art or language; they can focus on motor skills large or small, ideas grand or practical. I don’t care what part of their brains they feed, except the part they were feeding just now, as we passed your house. I want them to nourish the kind part of themselves, not the cruel part of themselves. So when they call each other names I stop.

Starting now, here, where your wife is probably going to want to park when she gets home from her high powered, well respected career, I’m drawing the line. Is she an architect or judge or chemist or venture capitalist or something? My job, right now, is to make people not say stupid. Kind of like an architect/judge/chemist/venturecapitalist. But for kindness.

I’m going to ignore them until I hear each say something kind. I can tell from your face that you don’t like the sound of that plan, what with me invading your personal space and all. But I’m going to tell you two things. First, they’ll say something kind really soon. They did when we tried this the first time just down the block. They told each other “I love you, have a nice day,” prompted by the four-year-old’s attempt to end the standoff. But as soon as I pulled into the street they called each other “oopid,” which is what got us to your curb. And that brings me to my second point: this isn’t your curb. It’s public property in front of your house. You don’t own this curb. We all do. And I need it right now. Step off, yo.

Because I’m practicing sitting patiently in front of your house. It cultivates patience, deep breaths, and a stalker vibe I’ve always shunned. Patience is good, patience is good, patience is…Aha. They said something nice. We’re off.

Just remember this for next time, please. We drive this street all the time, and the odds that we’ll park in front of your house again are relatively high. but we’ll leave relatively quickly.

That? Oh, that’s them testing me. I’ll take them saying “poo poo pee pee poo poo pee pee” because they’re not calling each other names.

Shhhh. Let’s pretend, okay? I have places to be.

 

Crowdsourced parenting

Ah, the joys of having two boys home for the summer. Together. Every day. Incessantly.

They’ve never particularly worked well together, what with the opinionated and high-strung (don’t know where he gets it) paired with the flamboyant and stubborn (don’t know where he gets it, either). Since the beginning, the eldest gives his brother exactly zero slack, and the youngest adores his brother until he perceives slight, and then he lashes out.

It’s good times. And has been for years.

So to keep from committing some form of -icide this summer, I’m trying a few techniques. And I want to know which YOU think might work better:

1. Put the whole cache of toys in time-out. Not initially, of course. But starting with the first shriek of disdain each morning, every nasty word, hit, kick, sneer, tease, and threat will trigger a toy being stuffed atop the fridge. The fridge where I prefer to keep the cereal and the whiskey will buckle beneath the weight of endless supplies of LEGO and Pokemon and traffic cones (geez with the construction cone obsession). I figure removing cherished treasures to psychologically beat them into submission has potential. Just not sure if I have enough time and enough fridge top. Or if imprisoning the distractions will bring on full-scale war.

2. Force them to say “I love you.” I realized tonight that each genuinely thinks his brother hates him. Really does. Peanut has no sense that his younger brother worships him, and Butter has no idea that the little acts of kindness that arise here and there are peace offerings from a brother whose always wanted to love but feared the wrath. So every time they hit, kick, punch, flick, pull hair, menace, or berate, if I make them say I love you, they should develop a healthy aversion to that phrase, distrusting it and using it as a tool in the same way most kids forced to say “I’m sorry” learn to distrust and manipulate that phrase. Win in the short-term, win in the long-term, seems to me.

3. Scream and wring my hands. Because talking about kindness and gentleness, positive reinforcement, and expectations for civil behavior have fallen on deaf ears for 4 years, I should up the stakes, right? Scream, wail, fling myself between them? It would, at the least, serve my need for the theatrical.

4. Sob and wring my hands. See above explanation and…and nothing. Just replace “scream” with “sob.” That’s not me being a lazy writer. That’s some serious strategic planning.

5. Effusively praise kindness. We’ve had success in the past with the “notice a kindness, put a marble in a jar” scenarios in which kindnesses accumulate toward a big friendly family event like movie night or a walk with glow sticks. I guess I could try that rather simple idea of calling attention to what I like and want from them. Sounds boring, though. Can we go back to writhing and wailing?

6. Maximize their chances for success. Get them outside and moving as early and often as possible. Hikes, runs, bike rides, soccer drills, tennis, walks, yoga, catch…anything that gets them into their own bodies and off of each other. This is the best thing we’ve come up with to date. But then, tonight, I hear during the daily recap of favorite-moment/biggest-challenge-and-solution-brainstorm that Peanut’s favorite was today’s hike and his biggest challenge was his brother kicking him on the hike. I’m not sure what part of the hike I missed, but I should have had a camera poised for this highly athletic child’s crowning moment in which he can hike and kick someone at the same time. Similarly, it would have been nice to capture the stage-averse eldest in this decidedly dramatic moment. I’m guessing he threw himself to the ground and writhed a bit. Don’t know where he gets it.

7. Combine them all. Toy-removal consequences, concordance rewards, screaming, sobbing, exercise outdoors, and forced professions of love. What could go wrong if I just throw myself into micromanaging every breath out of their contentious little mouths?

Anyone? Ideas for brotherly peace? Other than from the famous Camp Don’t Fight with Your Brother, which for some reason has a waitlist, what do you vote? Please tell me you’ve had success with the sobbing. That’s my favorite. But I guess it’d be okay if you suggest something else. It’s not like any of my plans are winning us a calm, silly, kind household.

 

Don’t blink!

This weekend was hectic and full and overwhelming. As weekends are. I was sick as a dog Sunday, but we had the last soccer game of the season and the party and the coaches’ cards I had organized. I had to be upright and smiling half the day, which was not ideal. And I was supposed to be working the other half the day, which was nigh impossible.

And as we left a lovely party with lovely families, my little guy was hilariously spastic. He and his brother were being goofy along the sidewalk, and I asked them to move aside for the man walking behind us. He smiled, but said it was fine that my kids were crazy.

“I miss this,” he told me. “Mine are teenagers and never get silly any more.”

“I love it,” I smiled, “but it would be nice for them to slow down just a bit. Once in a while.”

“You’ll miss it,” he told me again.

“I believe you. Because it’s seven days a week, 20 hours a day, and I will notice any moment of slowdown.”

I had to lie down at home after managing to be vertical for four hours after a long morning of not being able to keep down tea. The boys rolled all over me and ran screaming through the house and played a raucous game  of water balloons with their dad. I photographed the last bit, after puking my sips of water, because these memories never come back, and I knew when I felt better I’d love watching the smiles on their faces as they pelted Dad with exploding projectiles.

And I was sure I’d miss a client deadline today, because I couldn’t work as hard yesterday as I had planned to. I stayed up late, with sips of hot water and mint, and did what I could before I emailed the bad news.

But this morning both kids crawled into bed with me. The eldest asked me about caves and told me his plans for minecraft. The little guy slept. And slept. And slept.

He went along unwillingly to Peanut’s school dropoff. He tolerated my Monday run, and refused all treats that I offered. We came home and he collapsed in a whiny heap on the couch. Without asking for a movie.

Is it wrong to say I’m lucky he was sick? I made the deadline.

He slowed down for twelve hours and I felt restored. I sorted through the boxes their dad restacked in the garage after moving his boxes. I pondered a new organizing principle for my books. I chopped cabbage, diced a pineapple, and made tomorrow’s lunches. I made homemade veggie burgers. I drafted a client ad, swept, planned client blog posts, returned emails, and processed survey results from the preschool.

I’m sad that my little guy can’t get up off the couch. I know how he feels; I was there yesterday. But I’m so intensely glad he slowed down, just for a day.

Kid fevers are like vacation in my house.*

Is that awful to say? It would make a great ad for the don’t-use-fever-reducing-medicine-for-low-grade-temperatures campaign.  “A day of peace and quiet brought to you by a virus.”

*For the record, I would never let my child’s fever get too high. He is waking every hour or so for drink, and he asked for a plain bagel right before we picked up his brother from school. I’m not letting my child languish so I can work.

He just happens to be languishing. So I’m taking advantage of it to work.

And it feels soooooo right.

Just close your eyes

There is an exercise we do in fencing warm ups: we balance on one foot. And then we switch to the other. And after we switch back, we balance on each foot with our eyes closed.

You find out two things when you close your eyes and balance on one leg. 1) A surprising amount of balance predicates itself on vision. 2) Your proprioceptors function amazingly well if you get out of their way. Because the human body should adjust, balance, and re-adjust in response to stimuli. In fact, the human brain should also adjust, balance, and re-adjust in response to input.

So why do I feel as though, only a few weeks into the initial process, that a divorce is knocking my body and brain so far out of whack they can’t adjust?

I know this isn’t supposed feel easy or simple. I know after 15 years the path isn’t going seem as clear as we’d hoped when we finally, finally admitted how wrong our marriage has been for so very long.  I have proof, from the Interwebs, which tell me whenever I ask, that feeling all of the feelings is normal, even during an amiable split. Read some really lovely and awful and heart-felt descriptions of the journey from the incomparable Heather of the EO and my new blog-crush Carla of All of Me Now.

By the way, any time someone says their divorce portends a good thing, and that they’re both doing a great job of addressing the issues they could never address while married, you should give them caramel, the way two of my friends did. Because I can tell you that “doing a great job” of splitting up is something like doing a great job reading Heart of Darkness. It’s ugly and awful, and nobody would ever recommend it to anyone else. Caramel I can recommend unequivocally to everyone. Divorce and/or Conrad? Not so much.

But until a couple of weeks ago I thought, because I’m quite keen on control and planning and overthinking, that I could make a nice tidy plan for how this breakup would go.  And that it would. Go. Just follow a path toward eventual harmony and paperwork and a co-parenting friendship.

Rather like the way I thought I was rather balance-y at fencing. Until I close my eyes. Turns out I balance myself by finding stable points ahead of me and staring at them. When I close my eyes, that stable fixative point ghosts into a bleeding black puddle behind my eyelid, and the swimming scarlet and yellow vitreous drowns my efforts to clench myself into balance and unnerves my thinking mind enough to make me wobble. A lot.

Navigating through the day in an almost-former-marriage feels a lot like wobbling on one foot with your eyes closed. [My eyes closed. I can't speak for you, nor should I. If you ever try both the blind one-foot-balancing trick and the initial phases of separation in the same week, let me know how they compare.] I feel as though I have it all under control, barely, until I blink. And then logistics and hurt and choices and relief and work and timing and panic and money and regret and discussions and feelings and my poor, sweet, vulnerable little boys all swim in green and blue and purple venous blobs before me like a lake of bruises beneath which I’m drowning.

So I open my eyes. And I try to balance without focusing so hard. I try to let my body balance me rather than trying to force everything with my mind. I try to trust and I try to breathe. And I try to memorize how my body feels with this balance so that when I close my eyes I care less how it looks than how it feels.

And each day happens. And each night does, too. And the next day there’s another endless string of challenges.

And when I let my body handle those obstacles, rather than relying just on my mind, it’s like living in molasses. Because letting go and not controlling the hell out of everything taps proprioceptors I’ve never used before. I’m so slow right now. I type slowly. I think slowly and answer slowly. I’m even running so  slowly that I’m considering seeing a doctor. I’ve lost more than a minute per mile off my regular, don’t-have-to-try-for-it pace. That minute, on every mile I’ve run for the past month, is gone. Lost to the ether. I hope some young person in love and full of hope is running faster with my minutes. I miss them, but I’m willing to lose them forever if they go to a good home.

The words “a good home” make me a little maudlin. And by “a little” I mean “ask me in person because I’ll admit very little on a public blog even though I’m pretty darned honest here at good ol’ NaptimeWriting.”

All I know is that if asking my mind and body to do too much leaves me wobbling, I need to balance smarter. Eyes open, deep breath; eyes closed, rolling with the wobbles. Because that’s what learning experiences are for, right? Strengthening muscles you didn’t know you had? Part of me says, “but I don’t want these muscles because I promise I’ll never need them again.” But I will. For the rest of my relationship with the boys’ father, I will need these blind-balance muscles.

And that right now is the saddest part for me, after the waves of gut-punches at what this adult tower of cards means for the boys: I’m building muscles I don’t want to need. But I do need them. And so I will build them. I have to.

Eyes open, deep breath; eyes closed…let go.

 

photo

 

Dancing on marbles

Life is one big precarious attempt to not tumbling ass over teakettle, I am now convinced. And I’m trying to see the joy in the slapstick of walking boldly across a slick path made unpredictable with hundreds of marbles. Because every time I’m posed to post on this very spot about something lovely, I’m walloped upside the head with something decidedly unlovely.

And every time I want to wallow in the unlovely, something decidedly lovely distracts me.

You are likely aware, if you’ve been reading here for a while, that my gobsmackingly awesome children are finally starting to get along. Wise friends with three boys told me that once the little guy hit Four it would get better. And it has (with all the caveats about the fact that three people in the same house, none of whom has much emotional control, are rarely in the same mood and on the same page). Sometimes, now, when the first pats of butter-yellow light slip through their blinds and plop onto their beds each morning, Peanut and Butter wake up willing to engage in silly, playful interactions rather than surly, bickering nastiness. Sometimes. And that has increased the quality of life around here immeasurably.

Part of the boys’ getting along more probably roots in the fact that their Dad and I are being much calmer now that we’ve decided not to live together. Less struggle begets less struggle. So far. When there is tangible paternal-absence and marked maternal-lack-of-running-time, when the there might be a struggle or two. See the above metaphor about making steady progress along a marble-strewn path.

I’m sure that, in part, the boys’ kindness to one another stems from a fabulous trip to Boston. We walked the Charles, we spent our tourist dollars at Marathon Sports on Boylston. We ate good food (my GAWD I’ve missed Red Bones) and we practically lived on the T. We cheered for marathoners until we were hoarse. We even offered our fluffernutters to the many, many police working the course on Patriot’s Day. (One indignant Statie told me he already had his peanut butter with jelly, thank you. And then I believe he was fired for inMassabordination.) We spent time like a family, and it was good for everyone.

Part of the increased sibling harmony also stems from a deep sadness that has stilled my otherwise frenetic pace. The death of my friend has brought a rather large dollop of “I don’t care about anything any more” to my endless to-do lists and my frantic need to prove myself worthy through incessant activities.

As we made it through the memorial, we found out that a mutual friend, who was diagnosed with leukemia around the same time Jay had his first surgery, has relapsed. This little boy, who spent kindergarten in Children’s Hospital enduring rounds and rounds of chemo, and whose family learned a gratitude few of us will ever fathom, enjoyed first- and second-grade without cancer. Now his leukemia is back. He’s going through a couple of weeks of chemo before a bone marrow transplant.  We’re all trying coming together as a community, again, to get people checked, at no cost, to see if they’re matches for any of the many Americans in need of bone marrow. And maybe, if enough people get the free test, we can find our little guy a match!

So that’s exciting. If you’re one of the people who’s into bright sides and finding the joy of surfing the marble-covered path to tomorrow, it’s enlivening to have a purpose. To help. To appreciate and breathe and put one foot in front of the other. Nothing brings me out of “what’s the point” like a bone marrow drive.

Go hug your family. Email your friends and tell them you love them. Take a deep breath each morning, and relish what’s good.

And consider being tested to see if you’re a match for, and can help give a great life to, a sweet little boy.

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https://www.facebook.com/amatchforbay

 

Boston, one year later

We’re leaving for Boston soon (nice try, creepy burglar people, but we have a housesitter and trained attack kittens) and I’m so excited. Friends I haven’t seen in years, research for my novel, the always heart-filling fun of watching Spouse run a marathon.

But I’m worried. We haven’t told the kids about last year’s tragedies. We don’t plan to. I really, really really, really don’t want to. Really. Last year was devastating. Disgusting. Terrifying. Enraging. Like many others I spent every single ounce of saline in my body weeping for the families affected by those monstrous acts. I spent all night watching Twitter as the police went from my old work neighborhood to my improv neighborhood to my friends’ neighborhood tracking the alleged bombers. Brothers.

Photo: David L. Ryan/Boston Globe

Photo: David L. Ryan/Boston Globe

I’m looking forward to seeing how Boston is healing itself. I love that town and I keenly miss being a part of its crispy, crunchy shell and gooey center. (Boston is the caramel M&M that the Mars company has never successfully created.) I want to celebrate Boston and its efforts, I want to feel the community that has overcome the most horrible act during a celebratory act on a holiday of revolutionary acts. I am thrilled we’re going to cheer for Boston.

But I don’t want my boys to hear anything about the bombings. I don’t want them to see or know or think or in any way learn about the families, the sidewalks, the streets that will never be the same.

How terrible is that, though? Is it disrespectful of those families and runners and spectators and first responders to keep this painful reality hidden from young children?The mother in me says no, but it feels wrong to hide the truth.

We’re going back to Boston because I could never fathom being away from that city this week. I started training to qualify for Boston the day after the bombings. (I didn’t get far. I’m easily injured and I have limited time for training. So it’s not going to happen this year.) So did Spouse. We contorted family plans and finances to get the family out to Mass. as soon as he qualified. We’ve been practicing the proper pronunciation of the Chaaahlie Caaaahds we’ll need next week.

But I don’t want them to know.

Is that wrong? Is it disrespectful? If it even possible, given all the love Boston is pouring into Back Bay this week?

I want to honor those who died, those who were injured, those who helped, those who ran, those who sought, and those who stopped…I want so much to do whatever I can to help the healing.

But I don’t want to tell my kids.

Does that make me weak? Parental? Cowardly? Ridiculous? Mature?

Is that manic or depressive?

Today felt good. I think. I’m not sure.  I either interacted with the world in a deeply engaged way or I’m developing nervous tics to handle stress. Or both.

It's not bipolar. It's chimera!

It’s not bipolar. It’s chimera!

Butter and I dropped Peanut at school and went for a walk in the rain. I felt sunshine through the thin, grey, stacked clouds that snotted on us all day. Butter clung to me in the backpack, randomly snuggly today in ways that Almost Four resists in its developmental Need to Be Independent and Competent and Separate.

I liked it.

We wandered through the throngs of difference in downtown Berkeley—old and young, punk and granola, homeless and wealthy, tidy and filthy. I bought my little guy a bagel and a homeless woman some orange juice. I helped my Butterbean understand when he pointed out a man’s brightly colored, patchwork pocketed pants that no, those weren’t dirty and old pants, those are art. The young man wearing those carefully-crafted and well-worn pants (and the shirt with the large hole and the many face piercings and the giant chip on his shoulder) smiled at me and thanked me. I explained quietly to Butter that we can always talk later about what we see, but that talking about how somebody looks isn’t polite because it might make them feel bad even if we’re just curious. Then the impeccably-groomed college student getting Butter his bagel asked if I was aware that I had a small child on my back and I made them both laugh by trying to look behind me, asking, “Where?! Where?!” with great concern.

I carried my little carbohydrate fiend past a police barricade because I never saw it, focused instead on humanity today, making eye contact and noticing how simultaneously disjointed and alive the city felt. A stocky  man with a small face moved into my path and gently gestured, “stop, head back, cross, and go around” as he told me softly that the street was closed and he’d prefer that I please head back to an intersection and cross. I barely noticed his neon yellow vest and police uniform but I clearly saw his shiny apple cheeks and his wide brown eyes. I spun around and headed back, passing the barricade I’d missed. A few feet away from the barrier an unshaven man dressed all in black slumped into a corner and ran his hand through his unwashed grey hair as he said to me, “dead person.”

I looked at him and he looked at his fingernails.

Oh.

And I thought about that choice of words. Not “body.” Person. I thought about that reality and the half a block of thick public concrete and red curbs and parking meters and tall, caged trees blocked off for private police use. I noticed that the homeless were clustered in groups of four on every corner for blocks in both directions. This might have been a suicide or a homicide but was likely the routine expiration of a homeless neighbor from exposure or malnutrition or unresolved medical issues.

And they were aware—the police and the acquaintances. And I was now vaguely aware, but not really. And my preschooler was not aware. That’s true of much of life, isn’t it, that there’s a spectrum of connection and awareness. The circle of those you know and the wider circle of those you know less well overlap the circles of awareness borne of age and experience. Exposed lives versus sheltered lives versus young lives? That’s not the right way to define awareness. Because we know a homeless family with two small children. Do their kids know all the things these homeless adults do? Probably not. Are they witness to the street version of life or the child version of life or something in between?

My friend’s impending death won’t attract yellow police tape or the private use of a public space or gawking passersby. But his friends are gathered, too, communing. Huddled in support, not on street corners and not out of curiosity.

Today was a process of going, not unlike other days. Movement, journey, development. The day progressed and everything with a heartbeat did, too, whether the breathing and blinking felt like progress or not. And for some reason my progress today involved connection. Looking into eyes, gently touching arms as I passed, smiling. And asking questions. I stopped to ask the work crew what their truck was called (never seen a drilling rig with a mud rotor and never knew soil samples were taken this way). I asked the Goodwill clerk why they don’t sell baby gates to keep kittens out of handi-accessible bathrooms and whether she had enough help keeping the store as nice as she does (liability, and no, but she’s glad I noticed how hard she works). I asked the security guard outside Bank of America if there was actually any threat to BofA or if they were still making a statement about the lengthy Occupy Wall Street protests (not allowed to talk about security issues but have a nice day). I asked my back-bound lump of Butter what he thought about the varied art we saw in store windows.

I talked to my son who was still patiently snuggling me and his bagel, four miles into the walk, about the typewriter store and the traffic patterns and the balloon animals we were going to make when we got home.

Maybe constant verbal patter is my shield. Maybe what keeps me from noticing the dead persons and dying persons is nervous chatter. Perhaps I’m particularly engaged today because I’m anxious.

But what’s there to be anxious about? Death and homelessness and illness and loneliness and the thin threads that keep us from becoming unrecognizable to ourselves?

Well, that’s just silly. Why should that make me nervous?

Allow me to leave you with today’s soothing balloon giraffes.

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If those freakishly disproportionate bubble creatures don’t fix existential panic, I don’t know what will.

Teachable moment about “gay”

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The phone rang and I hit dismiss because I didn’t recognize the number. A few minutes later I  listened to the message.

“Can you please meet me after school with your child,” said my seven-year-old’s teacher, “because he has been acting out today in ways that are just not like him. There were a few incidents in the classroom, and then he was calling kids names, including calling someone gay.”

Needle across the record: He WHAT?

We are a relatively progressive family. We talk openly about equality and tolerance and people being accepted for who they are. Heck, today, when I couldn’t find shoes to match my pants, he sighed and told me, in his most bored pre-pre-teen voice, “It doesn’t matter what you look like, Mom. It matters how you treat people.”

So when I heard that my son had teased other kids, including calling someone gay, I prepared to give an epic lecture.

As I thought about the impending conference, though, I wondered if my son even knew what the word gay meant. Both my boys know all kinds of families look different from ours: we know families that have one parent, others with two moms, some with two dads; we know families that include one child, three children, pets, no pets, humans with dark skin, light skin, everything in between, and some of all of the above. There are so many kinds of normal constituting our village that I don’t know if my son knows what to call any of them. We don’t label our friends, so maybe he was just repeating a word he heard at school. Maybe.

So I planned how I would approach The Talk.

First, obviously, I had to ask what happened and why?

Second, I had to ask what he thinks the word gay means.

And the rest would pivot from there.

Except that it shouldn’t, I railed inside my head. Even if my son didn’t know that “gay” has been cruelly hurled as an epithet to make people feel bad or not, he will learn today. I’m going to tell him that trying to make someone feel bad by criticizing who they are is mean, not just to the person called gay, but to all the people nearby who hear that word and infer from the context that gay must be bad. Because there is nothing bad about gay. This is indicative of a culture that demeans with words like “girly” and racial slurs precisely because words buttress power structures. When child calls someone gay, it begins a process where an entire peer group learn to categorize gay in the “thou shalt heed this word and feel shame or disdain when you hear it” category. And all I can say is, “no way.” Not after all the hard work the LGBT community has done to fight for civil rights. Oh, hail no.

All human beings deserve respect and fairness. So my family will not use words that make people feel less-than. A new mantra was brewing. “There are no greater-than or less-than symbols in human interactions, children. We will not even practice using wavy lines to hedge our bets a bit and suggest that some humans are ‘approximately equal to.’ No. We will only use straight equal signs in all our interactions, so help me Math!”

“WAIT! I didn’t mean straight!”

“Wait again! I didn’t mean that straight’s not okay. Everything is okay! Different is good! I’ll just wear these shoes because they’re closest to the door!”

Sigh. My mantras need work.

Ahem.

We will not try to gain power by making others feel bad about who they are.

And that is the righteous banner I held aloft as I marched to my child’s school. The doors swung open and I prepared for an epic lecture on historical repression with…my small, tired, slumping little guy with the too-big backpack and the bedraggled hair.

Oh, pumpkin. I think I’m doing this wrong. This isn’t a battle. This is a talk about kindness.

Reboot parent mode. I climbed off my high horse and sat in a tiny chair at a tiny desk so I could listen to my sweet, sensitive, wonderful little guy.

What happened?

Teacher: I was at the sink when I heard voices saying, “Quinn is gay. Quinn is gay.” When I turned around, Peanut was one of the kids saying it.

Me: Why did you say that Quinn is gay?

P: What? He is gay.

M: What makes you say that?

P: Jason told me he’s gay.

M: I see. Um…what do you think gay means?

P: I don’t know.

M: Oh. Well, gay is when a grownup wants to start a family with someone of the same gender. So our friends M and K are gay, J and N are gay, and M and L are gay.

P: Oh. [beat] But G and K don’t have kids.

M: Family doesn’t mean kids. Family means who you love. But who we love is not all we are. When we go to M and K’s house for dinner, I don’t say “we’re going to our gay friends’ house,” right? I say, “we’re going to our friends’ house.” And when someone is meeting T, I don’t say, “This is my gay friend.” I say, “This is my friend.”

P: I know.

Teacher: If you are kind of teasing, saying “Quinn is gay, Quinn is gay,” he might think there’s something wrong with being gay, and there isn’t. We don’t tease. Just like you don’t say, “Quinn is blond, Quinn is blond.”

M: Right. If you did say that, Quinn would think there might be something wrong with being blond, but he can’t change that. And if you say that he’s gay, he might think there’s something wrong with being gay. And all the people around you in class start to wonder if blond or gay are bad things for them to be. So calling someone blond or gay might not hurt their feelings, but it might teach other people to feel bad about being blond or gay or tall or thin or whatever the tease is. Gay isn’t who someone is. It’s part of them. Like their hair. Brown or blond or gay doesn’t change, so teasing about those things is making someone feel bad. And it’s not okay to do something to make someone feel bad.

P: Okay.

M: May I also point out, really, that the things Jason tells you usually aren’t true. He told you girls aren’t allowed to play soccer. He told you that boys should like dogs because girls like cats. He told you “every single person in Mexico, even the old people and babies have machine guns.” None of those things is true. In fact, they’re pretty ludicrous. So I’d do some serious fact checking before I believed anything Jason said.

P: Okay.

We left the whole discussion at the door. I didn’t bring it up again, which took a lot of restraint. I still had many, many words I wanted to use. But I have to let the poor child breathe.

And I have to breathe, too. I don’t think he was trying to hurt Quinn or to cement hatred against the LGBT community. I think he was trying out a new word. And I think my son just learned that some words are simply unacceptable. I still remember my mom walking me through a whole list of racial slurs I may not ever use, including definitions and an explanation of how horribly each group had suffered under that epithet. Looking back as a parent, I wonder if she unleashed that lecture because I had used one of those names. Or someone said one to me.

So can I maybe relax and realize this is just a rite of passage, just the first step in a long series of conversations about how words have power, and how some people use powerful words to bully other people. A long, evolving conversation about finding your own power rather than taking it from others by devaluing them.

I take really seriously…perhaps too seriously…okay. definitely too seriously…my job of raising people who make the world a better place. I really hope my sons and their peers grow up knowing there’s more to people than their skin color or sexual orientation or gender. Allowing people to be more than the single words we use as labels builds the holy grail of attributes: kindness. Thankfully, that one comes from nurture.

Or lecture. I’m not sure which, nurture or lecture, but I’m going to try both.

Side note: heaven help me when I have to explain that sometimes, when people are old enough and their hormones tell them to, they change their hair color. Then all my metaphors are going to crumble and with them my authority over empathy and tolerance. Maybe.

Best. Meal. Ever

Maybe exceptions prove the rule, or maybe exceptions build new habits. I’m hoping it’s the latter.

There is generally copious stress during meal prep at Chez Naptime. The seven-year-old Peanut wants solitude, and if he’s not alone he wants to torment. He’s tired and hungry and not at his best. The three-year-old Butter wants…ah, hell, I don’t know what he wants. I’ve mentioned the tired and hungry and general ill temper, and they run standard in his body, too. But he’s also Three and wont to a)mimic behavior of all stripes and b)freak out for various, mysterious reasons.

So I try to make a meal while hollering encouragement from the kitchen. Wash, rinse, slice…. “I hear you finding compromises together. Thank you!” Peel, peel…. “You said that so kindly; can you hear his kind request and respond?” Chop, chop…. “I hear someone frustrated. Does anyone need help?” I set up projects and offer stories and put on dance music and ask them to help me make dinner.

But they’d rather wrestle and bicker and make it known that they need attention. Attention that I offer the whole rest of the time we’re together but that they reject unless I’m actually doing something with the stove. Then they don’t ask for attention so much as create maelstroms that demand my immediate and full focus.

And so I got buy-in from Peanut over the break that maybe dinner preparations are a good time for him to sneak off with the kittens to do his homework. And I asked Butter if he would help me make dinner.

And for once it worked. And I had to quickly change the plan to involve things he could do easily. He cracked the eggs and got ooky hands, but no shells in the bowl. I anticipated a freakout from the “I want to be capable but I’m Three and my hands suck at doing stuff and that makes me mad” chapter of parenting a preschooler so we talked about messes and how they’re part of cooking. We talked about the important stuff that’s hard to undo, like yolk in meringue. But this task involved scrambling not meringueing and there are no mistakes in scrambled eggs but tiny shards of shell. No shell? No problem.

He sliced two bananas. (Interestingly, he sliced his banana neatly and evenly. His brother’s he hacked into alternately huge and malformed pieces. I thought it might have been because he was holding the knife upside down the whole time, but the difference in banana from “this one is for me” to “this is for Peanut” was quite clearly not tool-dependent.)

He asked for something else to cut and I grabbed a couple of field roast sausages. He had an awful time with the butter knife, so I debated giving him a steak knife. Why the heck not? We reviewed knife rules: touch only the handle and place your free hand far from the blade. And as I handed him his first ever serrated knife and took from him the butter knife, I swooned at how warm his chef’s tool was. It was the sweetest, warmest, Butteriest butter knife in the world at that moment because it radiated earnest, adorable labor. Grownup, hard work cooking for his family. I considered putting the knife in his baby book instead of the sink. But I’m a bit of a germophobe, so I chose hot water and soap.

He cut the sausages and not his fingers. He asked if he could warm them up. I had wanted to heat them in a pan, but I’m raising a man, and he needs to feel capable so he takes risks and embraces learning as part of a journey toward mastery. So I told him yes and gave him a bowl. He put the sausage bits in a bowl, slid them down the butcher block counter, dragged his stepstool to the microwave, and opened the door of that appliance straight into his forehead. He rubbed the wound a bit and asked what to push. I listed numbers, he found and pushed them. I showed him how to make the magic happen. He pushed that button and ran for his life.

Then he wanted to keep going. He took the cheese out of the fridge and dragged his stepstool over to the stovetop for sprinkling onto the eggs. He warmed up some peas. He toasted bread. He spread butter. He set the table.  He poured waters.

And he went upstairs to get his brother.

No yelling. No bickering. The gentle beckoning of one who wants to feed one who is hungry. They washed their hands and sat down. I told Peanut that his little brother had made dinner.

“Oh, yeah?” he asked Butter kindly. “What part did you do?”

We listed the steps my tiny little guy had completed.

“Wow. That seems like a lot. Really good work, buddy.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Peanut asked me who had cut the banana. I pointed to his brother.

“You’re pretty good at cutting, Butter.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“That was a kind thing to say. Thanks, Peanut, for noticing his cutting.”

“Sure.”

They ate every bite of every dinner. They were polite and calm in the bath. (whuck?)

They took turns deciding which book got read. (double whuck?)

My three-year-old went to bed feeling that he had done something special to make his family happy. My seven-year-old went to bed feeling proud of himself and of his brother.

Y’all, this kind of evening has never happened before, and I swear to you, every time I use a butter knife I will feel that sweet, chubby-knuckled pride in my hand. I will hear my eldest praise his brother for work that clearly meant a lot. I will hear my youngest ignore that praise because he knows his own pride is infinitely more important that what people say about his efforts.

Oh, dear heavens above, this felt good.

I’m going to go get that butter knife out of the sink.

Ask the Internet

I’m sitting at the computer, searching for answers to questions Peanut has asked this week. When he asks me something I can’t answer, I save his queries on my phone for a calm moment at home. Then we sit down together and search for answers at least once a week. Part of the process is teaching him how to search for answers in a post-encyclopedia era. And part of the process is nestling next to each other and staring at a screen.

It’s unreasonable, I know, to make the learning process into a fear about some day losing him. But that’s where my brain goes when he’s not in the room. When he wants to know something, I can help him, but too much of the time he’s with someone else, asking someone else, exploring the world without me. And it will only get larger, the chasm of time that exists between moments that I get to see him. Breakfast…blink…almost dinner. I can’t help but think, as we find photos of icebergs and technical discussions of cave extraction, that he’s with me for so short a time. And I ache with the thought that some day he’ll be gone. I want to tell him all the things and listen to his every thought and absorb the way he thinks. And I know that sounds creepy and it’s probably just early-morning-me waxing affectionate about a wonderful creature who will frustrate me to within an inch of my life over the next 13 hours. But my love for my children grabs me at quiet moments and shakes me until my teeth chatter and my brain liquifies.

I want our lives full of wonder and exploration and creation. But how to create that when our days are chock full of getting ready and doing chores and running errands and doing things that need to be done? All of us. Not just my family, but every adult human on the planet. Paying bills and getting to work or looking for a job. Preparing food, cleaning up, making appointments, taking the bus.

So much of life is drudgery. How do we find enough magic to get us through the inane tasks?  How much wonder does a child need so that she arrives at adulthood appreciating life and marveling at the world enough to want to take care of it? How much wonder do we need to create to engage them?

I have tabs open so we can read through a slideshow of megaliths, glaciers, and base jumping technical equipment. And I  marvel at how far we’ve come from my childhood when you took questions to the encyclopedia at the library. I wonder what life and technology and knowledge will look like when my children are grown.

And gone.

See what my brain does? “How to get through, is this enough, are we enough, this is nice, my children will leave.”

Anybody else turn a question about glaciers into a panic that this moment is fleeting and that loved ones will change, grow, and drift away?

Can’t just be me, right?

Doesn’t matter, I guess. It’s almost time for him to wake up and make me pancakes. It’s the least he can do, since I’m going to show him what the Internet has to say about cave extraction techniques and since he will someday need to make pancakes for himself…and probably someone special. Oh, geez. I need to go breathe into a paper bag.

New Year’s Refocusing

Never a big fan of the concept of resolutions, I nevertheless embrace the idea that a new year is a captivating opportunity to reassess, refocus on priorities, and set new goals.

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the new year is also a good time to see how high you can climb

So our family talked all this week at dinner about what we remember from 2013. Peanut learned to read…really read…and committed himself with intense commitment to being on a team. Butter learned to ride a bike, unbuckle his own seatbelt, and wipe his own bum. (Holla 2013!) I revised my novel once and am excited to find time for another this year. I also applied for an ideal full-time job and after shrugging off the rejection, booked two contract jobs I’m enjoying.

Together over dinner and dessert and bath and cuddles this week we recounted the year and recalled our camping trips, our regular hikes, and the fun we had with family and friends. We celebrated the time we helped rescue a stranded seal pup and the adorable kittens we brought home from the shelter.

And tonight I asked everyone, as we settled in the darkness just before bed, what they wanted for our family in 2014.

Spouse said he wants us all to be more gentle with each other and to use our words more.
I said I want us to teach each other and make our home a place everyone feels safe rather than attacked.

Peanut says he wants more camping.

Butter says he wants doughnuts.

Spouse said he wants more nights like the one where we tasted dragonfruit.

Peanut said he’d really like to visit a cave.

Butter said he’d really like to try a doughnut.

Peanut said he’d like to see if there are any pyramids around here.

I said I want to visit family more often, see friends more often, and hike more often.

 

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December 30, 2013.
No, seriously. December. They’re clearly as crazy as they are adorable.

 

But really, I’ve been thinking about what I don’t want to change in 2014.

We’ve made it a habit to stay in touch with the friends who need us and the friends who make us want to be our best selves.

We started this year reading poetry over breakfast. We all enjoy it. A lot. Mostly because this month featured Shel Silverstein. That dude cracks us up, and not just because we picture my dad hassling him in S.F. in the late 60s.

We also started doing Mad Libs at dinner, right before we talk about the best and the most challenging parts of our day. You can’t beat a second-grader listing nouns and adjectives while the preschooler takes all requests for silly words and numbers.

I’ve been working to teach my body that when one boy hurts the other, adrenaline isn’t necessary. A calm script is. I want to keep working that script. Because reacting as though every punch is the end of civilization as we know it and a sure sign my children will spend most of their lives in prison just isn’t working for us. So I’ll stay on 2013’s path toward serenity in the midst of testosterone. [Note I said toward. I'm really, really, really far from that goal. But trying is always good, unless you listen to Yoda.]

Exercise and way less sugar has helped my focus. So this year I’ll keep adding exercise and keep minimizing sugar. I might wait another year before I ask my kids to let me meditate for five minutes in the morning.

Client projects have been welcome distractions from my already long to-do lists. Spending time with friends at the expense of projects has made me happier and justifiably pressured to focus on what’s important.

Going to bed early and getting up early to create for myself and for clients is still a huge struggle. But a journey of a thousand minutes begins by not snoozing my “go to bed” alarm. Which means I have to leave you now and prepare for an early morning “write now” alarm.

Here’s hoping that in 2014 you keep what you want and jettison what didn’t work in 2013. What are you working toward this year?

How much salt is in the ocean?

This week’s family fencing was lovely. And before my son’s lesson, when we picked up our friend, his little brother gushed to me about his first performance on stage. He’d worked hard and will be in his very first musical, and he talked about dress rehearsal and the costumes and his role. And I loved every minute of it because that’s another bug I love to see children catch. Theater and fencing in one day? Heaven.

So I thought about what’s important to share with my children. Making memories and building traditions and exposing them to what’s important: how do we choose, given limited time and limited resources? My answer has always been to plan in advance and prepare carefully. But life is getting way too messy for that.

We’ve always been a science-y family. When Peanut got lice, he was so excited because he wanted to see them under the microscope. When he asked which weighed more—orange juice or milk—we experimented to find out. But I’ve gotten away from experiments because I have no time to prep. I have client work and Board work and friendships to cultivate and a novel to edit and December to surmount. I can’t manage science, too.

Except I can.

So when Peanut asked how much salt is in the ocean, we looked it up. And we concocted simulated ocean water: 3.5 tablespoons of salt to 1 liter of water.

Then, in two separate containers, we made a saturated and a supersaturated saline solution: two jam jars, one with hot water and one with cold. We just kept adding salt, a teaspoon at a time, until one solution couldn’t hold any more.

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We added another teaspoon to see if anything surprising precipitated out. And then we kept going until the second jar hit its salt maximum.

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We watched over the next hour as the hot solution cooled to see if it would shake any of its salt out or if the cold solution would suck up a bit more.

Everyone tasted the solutions. And spat them out in horror, answering Peanut’s question about why you can’t just drink ocean water if you’re thirsty. (Butter made every guest that evening taste some, and to his delight, they were all horrified, too.)

And then the kids got bored. But I kept the solutions (and not just because they had several dollars’ worth of sea salt in them.)

The next day when they were getting on each other’s nerves, I asked them to find tiny objects. Ad we floated them in tap water, ocean water, and hypotonic saline. Bread ties, sunflower seeds, dried macaroni, plastic lids, flashlight parts.

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Maybe I can actually work this in. One small step at a time.