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.

Second-generation fencer

I have to admit to unreasonable happiness—nay, untoward joy—that my son showed interest in fencing. And that his friend initiated a conversation about trying fencing. And that my sweet and wonderful coach, a fencing master with decades of experience teaching kids to fence has classes we can actually attend.

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I will also admit to actual tears watching the man I’ve appreciated for 20+ years show my dear little guy, whom I’ve only known for about eight years, why a foil is not a sword (because it’s made dull, flexible, and not intended to harm), why the en garde position is ideal for fencing (showing less target, weapon hand in position to defend and attack), and why the sport is called fencing (offense then defense then offense then defense in rapid, unpredictable succession).

I beamed with pride watching Peanut’s personality show itself on the strip. Though cautious and analytical, he rarely hesitated and pursued opportunities without the sort of relish you kind of need for a sport where someone is pointing a stick at your face.

And I laughed a bit dragging him and his friend out the door several hours later, telling them that it’s better to leave wanting more than to leave after the fun has worn off.

Peanut said, on the way home, “I think I want to fence every day.”

His friend said, long after bedtime, “I just can’t sleep. I can’t stop thinking about fencing.”

And I teared up a bit more about that. I’m not a pushy fencing mom, and if they both want to quit after the first month I’m fine with that. But it feels really good to hear them relish something I love. Because it’s nice to share something…really share something…with your child.*

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*I’m not actually sharing it with him yet, though, since he refuses to fence me during open fencing. But some day there might be a moment he’s confident enough in himself and in my  ability to modify my technique to fence a beginner that we’ll have a photo of us fencing together. Five bucks says I cry. A lot.

Now *this* is what I signed up for

I’m pretty sure the gardeners, whom our landlord insists on paying, stole our rake today. So after I muttered to myself and raked four small lawns with my kids’ toy rake, the little guy and I lay on our backs and watched the sky. And he gently pulled something from my eyelashes, telling me, “just be still, Mommy. You have something on your eye-brown.”

The cuteness, people, erases all the rake-theft grousing.

We were running late on the way to school and there were a few tantrums about not getting dressed and not going to school and not wanting a cream-cheese-on-pumpkin-pancake sandwich and not wanting a jacket because “it’s hAWt, mom!” And all of these ruffled my feathers not a little, on a day where there wasn’t much time to breathe. But the hour I had to chill a bit involved my oldest teaching me to play chess, as Spouse taught him.

The awe and connection, dear reader, eliminates all the tantrum exhaustion.

The doorbell arrived just as my seven-year-old put my king in check. I’m not a good loser, and I seethed on the way to the door. Damned delivery ruins my damned mojo and likely loses the damned game for me and this damned whippersnapper trained by his damned father…box from Cowgirl Creamery. No, seriously, y’all. A surprise package from my favorite West Coast cheesemongers and cheesemakers and cheeseteachers. Inside the familiar white paper and balsawood box, beneath the recycled-paper faux straw is some Mt. Tam, our favorite triple creme brie, a large wedge of Wagon Wheel, the tastiest and mildest aged local and organic we can find, and some seasonal porcini-mushroom-encrusted washed rind cheese. And a phenomenal cookbook I hadn’t known even existed (because each trip to the Ferry Building or Pt. Reyes Station has me tasting all the salty, nutty sheep’s milk cheeses I can find while blindly ignoring all the environmental staged thrusts of jams and crackers and cookbooks).

The savory, creamy goodness, y’all, eases all first-time chess losses. Especially when the accompanying cookbook solves, in just the first chapter, my dilemma about wanting phenomenal coffee at home without any plastic. (Yes, Chemex is probably ideal, and my almost-all-stainless french press is okay, but cold-brewing is exactly my kind of make-ahead and use-as-you-go goodness.)

So my eye-browns were tidy, my brain full of chess (and evidence that my son is a diabolical mastermind), and my belly full of cheeses. But dinner was fraught and bath was looming and the children were wrestling. Again. There is apparently something hilarious about kicking your brother, literally, out of bed. One hundred times a day and despite repeated requests for some feet on the floor and bodies in the bath. And I’d had it. So I called my mom. Because nothing makes the kids pay attention to me like my ear near a phone.

Sure enough, they started bickering and calling me to intervene. I shut the door. They hollered louder. I walked into their room and signed, “stop; you hear him say stop, then stop,” to one; and “you bath now” to the other. And they laughed a gleeful, devilish laugh and hid under the bed. Problem solved. I continued listening to a story about a friend’s daughter who survived a fire and my mom’s subsequent story  to her friend about my PTSD after the fire. Just hearing the woman’s harrowing escape I cried, sad that anyone has to go through those moments just after a tragedy in which they call people, trying to be logical and thoughtful moments before falling into a million pieces of writhing fear.

And I hear giggles.

The dreadful little monkeys had shed their clothes, hopped in the bath, and were laughing that they intentionally disregarded the house rule about emptying bladders before getting in the bath.

Ugh. Little goofballs stopped my fear and my tears with their artisanal urine brine because they were beaming with pride that they’d joined forces and tricked me. I love being bested by my bestests.

The silly beauty, my friends, staunches fear and sadness.

Here’s hoping your eye-browns and your chess set and your coffee grounds and your cheese needs and your grin muscles are all attended to this week. Because melting into the cute and the awe-eliciting and the delicious and the comforting will cure what ails you. I hope.

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Mem’ries light the corners of my mind

Ah, Seven. The age of testing boundaries, I see. No, you may not demand things in a gruff voice and hope I’ll think you’re adorable enough to give you what you want. You will be ignored and like it, little man, until you can ask nicely. What you practice is what you become, and you’d better stop practicing talking to your family as though we’re fecally constructed. Otherwise you’ll talk to your subjects that way when you’re dictator.

Oh, Three. The age of burgeoning independence. Yes, of course you can do it yourself. I’ve known that for years. But now you end every conversation with, “Mom. I can do whatever I want.” May I just point out how terrifically cute that is, despite its terrible foreboding? You’d better not contract  “second child gets away with murder” syndrome, because I can’t bear to know that you’re going to take my car without asking in 12 years and just tell me, sweet eyes shining, “Mom. I can still do whatever I want.” Didn’t you just hear me tell your brother to knock it off? You, too.

I remember when you were both just adorable and needy. What’s up with this capable and sassy authority-defying thing?

Where the heck did you get these qualities? Certainly not from me.

Nothing bonds like gas

Every week at our family meeting, we talk about what has worked and what has not worked for the family. (Still a pretty big fan of The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler.)

And every week we all agree that time spent together outside makes us feel good about the ways in which we interact. We’re nicer outside. Hiking, running, playing ball, and exploring make us kinder to each other. Kinder makes us all feel warm, fuzzy, and proud. And it begets more kindness. Cycle of goodness, circle of life, and all that.

But tonight trumped even the best hike.

Some second-grader at school taught Peanut and his whole class to use their armpits in the way nature intended: to fake fart.

He was so excited walking home. “Mom! Mom! Did you know this? You can make a toot with your armpit. Watch!”

I was so proud. I recalled my aunt armfarting with her sons, and relished the thrill of finally feeling my role in the tradition of the lone-woman-in-a-family-full-of-males tradition. It is my sworn duty, in this pivotal of all parenting moments, to produce better fake flatulence than my kid.

So I tried. And tried. Nothing.

Peanut didn’t notice my colossal failure. But later in the evening, he produced his new, Harvard-entry skill for the rest of the family. And I renewed my efforts to show him how it’s really done.

I tried so hard, so unsuccessfully that I made the little guy laugh. “What’s wrong with Mommy?” Spouse asked Butterbean, as I flapped my elbow furiously, trying to make my barely audible puffs of air into the best nonverbal noise available to humans.

Nothing.

Peanut rolled his eyes. “It’s so easy, Mom. I’ll bet Dad can do it.”

armpit

Oh, boy did he. We all laughed ourselves teary as Spouse put on an armpit symphony. He grinned, and bowed.

“See, Mom?”

No way. I will not be shown up. I build furniture (sure, from Ikea, but I do it myself and it doesn’t wobble, so it counts), I change lightbulbs, I replace batteries, I splice wires, I build circuit boards. I won’t be bested in the simulated arm-gas competition.

I changed my hand position. I cupped my pit more carefully.

Nothing.

I tried the other side.

Nope.

And I realized why.

There wasn’t a complete seal. Because of my undergarments.

So I shoved Spouse out of the way, for his demonstration was wearing on my patience. I casually employed the quick and easy unhook-and-yank-out-through-a-sleeve.

And I let out four of the most beautifully resonant arm farts you ever did hear.

Success.

All I’m saying, is if you’re fighting a fake-flatulence war with Y-chromosome-bearing armpits, ditch the bra. In all other cases I say unto you, “wear what you want to wear, when you want to wear it, if you want to wear it.” It’s your body. Support your Cooper’s ligaments as you see fit.

But if you need to rip a fake one? Remove the interference.

[This post will self-destruct before I apply to law school or run for public office.]

Why ask why?

I was getting a bit worried about Butter. Not worried, really, but wistful. He hasn’t gone through the Age Three Incessant Why phase. And I rather miss it. I loved telling Peanut several years ago why the sky is blue and why there are white and yellow lines on the road and why bread has holes in it and why toilet paper comes on rolls.

I love why, that’s why.

But Butter doesn’t ask why.

Look at that: navigating between a rock and a hard place.

Look at that: navigating between a rock and a hard place.

And I wondered, for the briefest moment, if he might be his own person, built differently than his brother and I are. He’s not of course. He’s my baby doll to do with as I please and to coerce into my plans and to bend to my whims.

[Let's let everyone who has ever known a three-year-old pause to laugh after that one. If you're bored while you wait for the cackles to die down, go see what Peanut did when he was Three, for a sample of this delightfully demonic age.]

So as I longed for the Whys and fretted a bit and wondered if I’d missed an important phase, I realized the reason Butter has skipped Why.

Because his approach is “Why should I believe you when life is so uncertain?”

If I tell him that cheese might be white or orange, and we’ll see what’s at the store, he’ll tell me, “Mommy. Maybe it’s blue. Don’t tell me no. Because MAYBE.”

When I tell him that we’re going to eat, take a bath, read, and get in bed, he tells me, “And maybe we’ll go for a bike ride. Really, Mommy. Maybe.”

Hard to argue with maybe, I guess. Can’t imagine where he learned that.

Tonight I told him that tomorrow is Tuesday. He said, “Mommy. It’s maybe going to be Monday. MAYBE. Maybe, Mommy.”

So instead of searching for a scientific cause, a reason for that which is, Butter’s looking for a nuance that will let him out of the laws of physics. And society. And the space-time continuum.

He’s looking for an out, not a why.

I think a legal career, maybe. Or advertising. Shades of gray. Politics, perhaps.

Shudder.

 

Lockdown

We found a babysitter.

That doesn’t sound like much of an announcement, but believe me, it is. Especially given the terror of being without my children wrought by this week’s events.

I have a hard time letting go. During Peanut’s first year, I was away from him for 10 hours. Total. I still remember each hour: dentist, bra shopping, 10k, surgery, theater. Over the next few years, only trusted friends and relatives watched him, and only an hour or two at a time. And even then, only rarely. Three times a year, maybe.

When Butter was born, we tried to get out for an hour once or twice, but he cried himself purple and I just couldn’t take it. So we stayed together unceasingly until he was almost Two. Friends tried taking the little guy for an hour or two at a time. And we paid a sitter, a well-vetted preschool teacher, to stay with both boys for part of an afternoon. Four times, total.

That was two years ago.

So to say we found a babysitter is pretty freaking huge. She has great references. Preschool teacher, summer camp counselor. Local. Loves all the things that Peanut does. Gave her a trial run and we all had fun. And we need her because on the one day a week I work at the co-op preschool, she will pick up Peanut from second grade and occupy him for two hours until I get home.

The night before her first time picking up my amazing, responsible, articulate, beautiful son, I freaked out. I wrote a long email about how, though here references are great and she promised she’s not a serial killer, I had doubts about the safety of the Universe and I really need a text when she gets him and a text when they get home.

The sitter kindly reassured me. Told me how she’s picked up kids at this school before and that she knows the ropes. Tells me she’ll text me. Tells me everything will be fine and that she does this for a living.

And she does. So okay. Trust. Breathe. Believe.

My sweet little man had our spare key on a ring in his backpack. The very thought of that violently smashes up two simultaneous thoughts: “He’s such a delightful, responsible kid, this is great for his feeling of independence;” and “OMG I’m a 1970s mom going to Jazzercise while my second grader walks home to an empty house!” The shards of my psyche that result from the idea collision kept me awake that night.

I’ve mentioned, I believe, that I don’t let go well. Also not big on perspective. Hyperbole, though? Some significant facility with that tactic.

At the designated hour on their first day together, I pull out my contraband phone and ignore the preschoolers cavorting around me for five seconds to see that I don’t have a text.

Five minutes later, nothing.

Ten minutes later, I text.

“Do you have him yet?

“Yes. Just got him. On our way home.”

[Why are you fifteen minutes late? Doesn't matter. I'll ask later.]

“Okay, home now!”

So I relax. And I smile at children and clean up after children and negotiate conflicts with children and sing with children and wonder why I’m not paying someone to do this stuff so I can go play Mancala with my eldest child.

We get home and I’m relieved. He’s happy, she’s happy. Everything is where I left it. No severed limbs, no puddles of blood, no house party.

Letting go…hard time…rather consistent theme…moving on.

I ask this wonderful creature, who has delivered unto me my seven year old, for her report of the day.

“Everything was fine. I went to the wrong door to pick him up and waited rather impatiently because there were tons of police cars and one of the parents told me there had been a lockdown but she didn’t know anything, so I walked up to another, confident looking woman and introduced myself, said I was picking up a child for the first time and what is going on?”

Having a hard time breathing, in part because my eyes are open so wide they’re sucking all the oxygen from the air and all the energy from my other muscles.

“She told me that there had been a lockdown at the school because someone had gone inside and the police were called.”

And boom, thus ended all future babysitting hopes and dreams. My children will never be out of my sight again.

Sandy Hook is geographically distant from here, but it’s not far from any American elementary school. It’s right next door to all of us.

I tried to breathe but found only hot waves of tears.

“Are you okay?” she asked, clearly concerned at my willingness to lose control of my tear ducts upon hearing about silly things like police cars and lockdowns.

I look at the stove and the fridge and the first aid kit and the fire extinguisher. And I nod. “He’s fine, you’re fine, we’re all fine, so I’m okay, but no, I’m not okay.”

“I finally figured out to go to the right door and I talked with his teacher and he didn’t seem worried that I was late. And I felt awful because you told me the right door, but all those other times I picked the kids up, we went to the other door, and…”

“I’ll ask him, but I’m sure he’s fine. I’ve been late and he knows that his teacher will make sure he’s okay. I’m more worried about the lockdown, really.”

“Well nobody knew much, and you never know if what you hear outside is rumor or truth or partial truth. So ask him. He’ll tell you.”

She left in a blur and I pretended everything was fine and casual and normal. Because I have so much practice asking my suburban, sheltered kid what happened when the sirens went screaming outside the school, right? I begin low key, because there is exactly zero benefit to freaking the kid out.

Stick to the ritual: How was your day, what was your favorite part, what was your biggest challenge and how did you address it; and by the way, what was up with the lockdown?

He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“I don’t even really know what a lockdown is. What does it mean?”

“We were outside and the teachers all yelled, ‘Inside now,’ and pointed so we went inside and then we went back out.”

“Oh. Inside your classroom?”

“No, the cafeteria.”

“And [shrug, beat]… what did they tell you?”

“Nothing. We were trying to guess why we had to come inside and I thought maybe the police found something that a robber took.”

“Hmmm. Maybe.”

And now came the veteran move. Wait. Say nothing. Wait. I can always ask again later if I really need to know. But wai…

“I didn’t like it.”

“Oh?” Faking casual. “Why?” Pure liquid goo inside, wanting to kiss his face for twenty hours because he’s still alive, calculating the cost to my sense of self of homeschooling, and praying that he wasn’t scared at any point.

“Because we only came in for a few minutes and then went back out but it felt like it took away all our play time.”

“Yeah. I don’t like it when I get interrupted for a drill or an emergency or anything and then get less time to do what I want.”

“Yeah.”

We talked a bit more about his favorite part of the day, and we finished the night as usual. Face kissing limited to a few minutes so as not to reveal my secret baggage full of helpless liquid goo and fear and whatnot.

The second the boys were in bed I texted another parent to find out what happened.

The neighbors called the police when they thought they heard a gunshot. Several squad cars rushed to the scene. Some staff members saw the police and called a lockdown. *Then* they called the police to see if they should be concerned. The police reassured them that all was clear. Better safe than sorry, good job team, moving on, just another day.

What rings in my ears are the colliding voices of terror, “My baby knows what a lockdown is;”  and “I won’t always be there when things get bad.” Earthquakes, bad people, fires. Tragedy. Cataclysm. You can prepare and you can hope.

But you can’t always be there.

I hate every single brushstroke of that.

New Season

Something fantastic is happening within the walls of my everyday life. Though the weather says Summer and the calendar says Autumn, our life is accepting the contradictions and melding into a strange, wonderful trifle of peach-raspberry-pumpkin-spice pie.

Yesterday morning a small, precious creature rose from his bed, used the bathroom, changed his clothes, and tromped downstairs to find his brother, who had engaged in a similarly self-directed ritual half an hour before. There was no struggling to climb into my bed, no sweet cuddling and twirling my hair, no early-morning screaming, no nursing, no heart-piercing dread of him falling down the stairs, no mid-night panic that he might have died in his sleep.

My youngest stands at the doorway between baby and child. And it’s amazing. Incredible to watch, intense to fathom, and lovely to experience. The steady flood of adrenaline that has colored my life for almost seven years has slowed. Anxiety pumps through me infrequently now. I pause. I breathe. I blink.

I didn’t remember what blinking felt like. Doesn’t that sound twisted? I had forgotten to blink, or couldn’t blink, or wouldn’t allow myself. To blink.

It’s quite nice, I must say, to stop the visual input, lubricate my eyes, and rest my brain. For a whole second every now and again. Quite delightful.

Last week the two boys and I walked into a restaurant and I asked them to sit down. They did. And I dropped my shoulders. I ordered burritos, paid, got water and salsa. During that two full minutes, I didn’t panic that they were falling down and cracking their heads, that they would fight, that they were bugging the other customers, or that they would run out the door and I’d lose them forever. I looked over once or twice, and they were sitting. And talking.

As though they were real, live humans.

Life is more like life now and less like a muscle-clenching jolt through incessant struggle and fear and joy and crying. Mothers with tiny new babies and precocious toddlers know the unblinking cycle of love and panic and love and panic and love and panic and frustration and love and panic. But elementary school and preschool have a different rhythm. The pace still daunts, but there are breaks for air. Time to drink water, enjoy hugs, breathe through frustration, and hold conversations.

This world is foreign, but I no longer feel as though I’m a human forced to live amongst bats.

My life is increasingly mine: a three-dimensional structure to layer and paint and plan. And inhabit. Time no longer flies by with me hanging on for dear life. I am in my skin, I own my voice, and I’m creeping toward a time when I will again make powerful decisions about who I am and what I want.

I’m not saying my children stole my power, though the sensation I’m finally shaking would make more sense if I were a vampire and they had mirrors strapped to their heads. And bottoms. And feet. I’m saying that I chose to parent in a particular way, and that I won the Lottery of Intense Children, the result of which is that my ability to exist in my own life has simply been missing for seven-and-a-half years.

And now that I’m coming back from life in a distant, alien land studying in a  foreign language to be someone I’ve never actually intended to be,  I have choices about how I’ll put the pieces of my life together. This is decision time. I’m debating returning to full-time corporate work. I’m contemplating law school. I’m even thinking of going back to teaching. I’m finishing my novel (yes, still). I’m both taking and turning down freelance work.

So why continue the blog? I began this blog five years ago because I felt lonely and frustrated as an intensely driven, full-time parent of a highly sensitive toddler. In moments of solitude I used this space to process my thoughts and feelings. I wrote my frustrations and my triumphs. I found ways to make going crazy sound funny. I vented online to keep from spiraling deeper into depression.

And the blog found an audience. As my son grew and changed and turned our family upside down in all the ways a small child can, I wrote and was heard. I helped readers and they helped me. We became a community and it felt nice to talk with the kind of people I never found in person while we lived in Southern California. The blogosphere kept me sane, so I did my best to write well for them.

When we moved to Northern California and when Butter was born readers were loyal and kindly listened while I stumbled about, trying my best, failing, and trying again. I wasn’t as funny as I had been with only one child, but I tried. And it was enough. Because with two small children and a nighttime freelance career, all you can do is try.

Or drink.

But the heart of this blog—loving my children and clawing toward an unseen buoy while fighting the upheaval to my sense of self—might not be my truth any more. I’ve accepted the major sacrifices and changes that parenthood on my terms has wrought, and I’m beginning to see a richly warm light at the end of a long, dirty, dark, wonderful but claustrophobic tunnel.

So is aging out of a major phase a reason to kill the blog? Nobody here naps any more. I’m not writing at naptime. I’m writing and researching and parenting and cooking and avoiding and volunteering and striving and observing when I can, without marking time based on what tiny creatures do. That which now feels more relaxed and less frantic might be less interesting.

Is that enough reason to stop blogging?

I hope not.

Because this new feeling? This sense that I might actually make it and that my children might actually make it and together we might actually make something we’re proud of? This is an experience I’d really like to share.

I hope you’ll stick around to hear what happens.