31

Parenting 2.0

Spouse and I have tried to teach our children how to face conflict: assess the situation, design a solution, work hard to do your best, notice what’s working and what isn’t, try even harder, and be flexible and open to new decisions when new information arises. I don’t know if these words have  sunk in yet. We explain that doing the hard, sometimes boring work of practicing a skill, whether reading or soccer or math, is really important for later, when you have to build on that foundation. We’ve explained that mastering any skill takes incessant, regular, repetitive brain exercise. Struggle is important. But too much struggle is sometimes a signal to stop, take a breath, and change course. “We’re a family of problem-solvers,” we always say. Because you can’t bang your head against a brick wall and hope it’ll move. You have to be tricksty.

And now they’re going to see what we really mean about working hard, trying again and again, and, sometimes, giving up because you just can’t make something work. Spouse and I have arrived at a new realization and we’re figuring out how to implement our plan. We’re pretty sure that we’re going to focus on what we do well: love our kids. And we’re going to ditch what we don’t do well: being married.

Marriage is hard work. And we expected that because anything worth having involves active, thoughtful work. But marriage shouldn’t be miserable without cease. And the work should show some reward. Banging our heads against a brick wall trying to force our marriage back where it was ten years ago hasn’t worked. Neither has therapy or empathy or practicing communication skills or willing ourselves to compatibility.

We’re a family of problem solvers, dagnabbit, so we’re going to stop doing the same thing and expecting different results. The life hack here is elegant, simple, and scary: be the best parents possible to our children without being married.

The effects of agreeing to work smarter not harder have been immediate and palpable. After years of being our worst selves with each other, struggling yet finding ourselves sad, lonely, and angry, we’re going to stop forcing it. And saying that out loud has made us more patient with each other and with the boys. We obviously have years of work to do to repair the damage we’ve done to each other in this marriage, but we’ve gone a long way toward some kind of healing this week.

I have always feared divorce. So has Spouse. We both had parents who divorced, and neither of us weathered that process well. In fact, we’ve resisted even talking about a separation for years because we don’t want to hurt the boys.  But here’s the truth: we can’t control everything that happens to them, and we certainly can’t continue the way we are, pretending that married parents are better for children than any other situation. We’d rather address any feelings our children have by actively and lovingly engaging with them. Both of us. We can’t control their feelings but we can control giving them the best home environment we can. Two happy parents listening to them and being with them regularly from different houses is much better than two exhausted and raw parents snapping at each other and at them.

The societal obligation to stay married t one person for 80+ years leaves me tense, waiting to shiver in the shadow of failure-guilt. But since we talked about letting go, we’ve been kind and understanding, gentle with each other and with ourselves. I can’t tell you the relief of getting along, after years of just feeling wrong. I can’t speak for him, but I’m incredibly proud of how mature we’re being. Come back and read in a week and see if that’s still true. For now, this doesn’t feel like failure.

I’ve read and heard many people mocking Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s announcement that they’re consciously uncoupling, forming a partnership that involves co-parenting but not marriage. I don’t understand the vitriol or mocking. I know they have enough money that they don’t share our worries about whose couch to sleep on, whether self-help books from the library are enough to count as therapy, or whether we’ll have to uproot Peanut to a different school system because we can’t afford two rents in our district. But it seems to me that the conscious uncoupling being so roundly mocked on social media is pretty damned mature. Understanding that disentangling adult lives requires leaving intact the framework we’ve built around the children’s growth seems like a baseline for all couples separating. If Gwyneth and Chris are unraveling the parts that aren’t working but redoubling their efforts where their love does the most good, then I say mazel tov.

Spouse and I are making preparations for how things will look in the short- and long-term. And though I got confused initially, the ease with which we can cultivate a warm kindness for each other does not mean we have a marriage. It means that we are partners. And that is the point, because we are going to be partners forever. We have children whose well-being demands our most engaged effort.

I believe separating, consciously uncoupling, and perhaps divorcing are all going to be challenging. But I believe our children are emotionally strong, and that as reasonable human beings and respectful partners, we can engage in this process together and make it right for us.

If someone offered to partner kindly and thoughtfully with you to raise your children, but didn’t want to be married to you, would you take that compromise? Or would you fight to force the union, and let strife affect every moment of your emotional life?

I’m taking what’s behind Door Number Three. Because I’m tired of forcing our family into emotional turmoil. And know a good deal when I see it.

 

 

8

Aces: spades and hearts

My amazing big guy is now Eight. And my dear little man has turned Four.

IMG_0213 (2)

We all made it alive, mostly, through Three, that year that lives as a specter on the psyche of every parent, that year emblazoned with red, dripping letters that cry, “Why does everyone say that Two is such a big deal? Three is the year that leaves no family unscathed!”

And just a few days into Four, I can say…it’s a tiny bit better. So far. Not holding my breath or anything. This isn’t my first time to the rodeo and I know phases last just long enough to get used to them, and then all techniques become invalid and parenting permit is up for renewal again, just a week after you finally passed the test for Extreme Tantrums, age Three Years and Fifty Weeks. Probably. If phases get too predictably unpredictable, then they stay for a while. Whatever it takes to maximize digiposture among human parental units.

The part I find most amusing about Four this time around is the bipolar self-awareness. Last week, he said to me, “Mommy, I’m a bad guy. No…I’m a good guy. That makes me a wild card, right?”

Oh good gawd, boy, it sure does. I laughed, which makes him giddy. He now tells me that lunch is a sandwich, no it’s yogurt, no it’s a wild card. And his travel backpack has trucks and ninja because…you guessed it…the backpack is a wild card.

Family game night is obviously having an effect on the lens through which he views the world. But little Wild Card is a big change for our family. We’re a group of persevering gamespeople. We open a game and we’re in it for the night. Butter, though, ceases all engagement after one round. No matter how long the endeavor takes, once a single full game finishes, he collects the pieces, drops them in the box, replaces the lid, and drags out something new. This has completely upended the whole way of life for our tenacious crew. Peanut, Spouse, and I could play 700 rounds of Yahtzee and not think it’s time to be done. We can get through an hour of Indigo, get some water, and start again. Done? What do you mean you’re done? There’ve only been ten games! Challenge the winner. Reject your current strategies and test some new tricks. Hope for better letters next time.

And while I’m not in my element with someone who feels he’s done after one round, he is a refreshing change from the sweet older guy whose attention span rivals a doctoral thesis advisor’s. Peanut can take a task and work on it for hours. Genuinely hours. Meticulous, careful work.

Such care and attention make hanging out with him quite enjoyable.

They’re both lovely fun and I enjoy them enormously.

Here’s the catch (for you know there is one…I’ve been blogging here for six years and you know darned well that fewer than a handful of posts exist without a catch): my children are amazing company with one-on-one. But that arrangement is rare. More often, they’re sharing physical space (poor stereotypical siblings: younger wants to do everything older does, and older wants younger really, really far away). Each boy is almost always seeking exactly the opposite of what his sibling offers. Peanut wants to do something intensely and for hours on end, and Butter is done after five minutes. He gets frustrated with Peanut for lingering, Peanut gets frustrated at Butter for ruining his concentration/picture/building/project/flow and loud, acrimonious, physical battles ensue.

And my job is to interrupt the fight, explain how they each need to talk about their needs and feelings, and how they each need to respect their differences. But they’re four and eight. They love fighting. Butter doesn’t want to articulate that he’s done and would like company on his next adventure. Peanut doesn’t want to explain, again, that he’d like to finish what he started.

And so games, art, reading, play, potion-making, and crafts are all punctuated by raucous, adrenaline-provoking frustrations. I intercede. They don’t want to hear me. I try to reason with them. I try emotion, I try logic. I either give up or separate them.

Usually.

But not at the beach.

 

IMG_0226

At the beach there is no end to the compromises they’re willing to make or the personality flaws they’re willing to overlook.

I think we’ll just move to the beach.

6

Neurotics on parade

When a friend raved about her favorite cookbook, I hoped it would be the answer to my food rut. For a while I resisted buying it, since it’s  not in paperback yet. Mama is cheap, even when it comes to books.

But I couldn’t stand the meal stagnation or the lack of inspiration, so I splurged.

I flipped through, drooling at the possibilities. I hopped to the table of contents, browsing for a direct path to dinner. I scanned the introduction, which is full of wonderful advice and ideas and…

The options so overwhelmed me I started to freak out. The pages on cooking tools reminded me that some of my measuring cups are missing, some of my spoons ought to be replaced, I have been lax in eliminating all plastic from my kitchen, and I’ve been misusing my pastry scraper for years…and I began to panic.

Deep breath. We’re just skimming. Next page.

The thoughtful section of having a well-stocked pantry had me thinking I should rearrange my cabinets, toss my spices, make lists for the next visit to the bulk bins. Of course I should! How have I not revisited the backbone of my pantry lately? I flushed with the tasks inherent in perfecting the cupboards. How exciting! Flawless cupboards! Goodness gravy, how daunting! This will take weeks! When the hell am I supposed to do all this? A five-second glance became, in my imagination, the beginning of a path up Everest, a thrilling but terrifyingly involved journey that I need to begin and complete rightthisveryminutebeforethekidsgethome.

Deep breath. I reminded myself that I didn’t have to read the whole book in one sitting, and this should be fun. The untapped potential of a new cook book. The possibilities, the excitement in preparing meals for an eager audience…and still I freaked out.

Which recipe first? If I just flip and find one I like but nobody eats, will I begin to resent the book?  Will my enthusiasm for exposing my family to new flavors and creating family favorites wane, leaving only perma-quesadilla-mentality? Will all this money be wasted? Will my previous time be wasted trying to recreate someone’s art only to find that I am alone in my appreciation? Will we get to a point where we eat nothing but burritos every night because they’re easy and cheap?

Wait, a minute. What happens if they like what I make? If I look at each page and choose an ideal recipe based on more than twenty-four collective years cooking for my three guys, and I wow my family and re-inspire my culinary passions, will I set the bar so impractically high that I’m spending hours every day making meals that are increasingly awesome and insanely challenging? Will I become one of those people who doesn’t laugh at Martha Stewart’s recipes? Will I—things are getting really scary now—actually mix the dry ingredients then the wet ingredients and combine rather than refusing to dirty more than one bowl? If I spend more than 3 hours a day on food, that’s a whole day of every week just on these recipes. My family deserves a meal spark, not a freaking full-time chef.

I rode the waves of panic, excitement, fear, hope, indignation, and exhaustion until I closed the book and took another breath.

Geez. Seems I made skimming a new cookbook into a feat of terror, obligation, and insurmountable tasks.

Why am I not surprised?

IMAG4927(1)

26

Dying

Death is amazing to watch.

I went last night to visit a friend who has faced, fought, accepted, and been taken over by cancer. Two weeks ago he was still saying that he was happy when he was awake, and that his social calendar was packed because “all this dying stuff is hectic.” Soon, though, his texts grew less coherent. I went to visit and he said that he wasn’t happy when awake any more. As he withdrew into his body’s processes, life was not fun or joyful or interesting anymore. It was a painful chore and he was desperately frustrated at being sick and in pain and feeling terrible for four years.

Over the weekend he started hallucinating, wandering, and terrifying his family. He didn’t make sense, he couldn’t understand, and he wasn’t safe. The hospice nurses came and monitored his meds until he settled. So what I visited two days later was the mostly-dreaming, mostly-gone version of my friend. He looked relatively healthy, and had the same adorable, shiny red cheeks and red beard he was so proud of. There wasn’t much left to his body, but his face was still his face. And as he writhed and settled and writhed again, it looked as though he had a terrible flu and was feverish but would recover.

I sat with him and tried to talk. I rubbed his wandering legs, trying at once to reassure him and to encourage his dream of walking somewhere. I’m rarely at a loss for words, but I’m not well versed in what you say to someone who can’t reply, who doesn’t care about most of the world anymore, and who is almost across a threshold that our culture goes to excessive lengths to avoid.

I wasn’t worried about saying anything wrong. And I wasn’t worried about trying to comfort him. I just wanted to talk the way we usually talk if only so he felt normal for a moment or two.

I talked about his kids and what kind of people they might be as adults. He made faces like he was talking. I talked about how Spring has walloped us, even after a month of warm and sunny, with that flawless Berkeley wall of sunshine and wisteria and star jasmine that makes me feel like a honeybee skittering around telling colleagues about the best pollen sources. He winced. I asked about the garden: what his wife might plant and whether he was glad he’d done all that work to build their raised beds. He kicked as though he were walking.

I told him about a school project my son had done, and how adorable it was. He grew agitated. I asked if he wanted quiet. I guessed from his relaxing that he did. He rested fitfully and I watched.

His breathing is surprisingly smooth for someone with a lung tumor so large it forces his ribs aside and creates an A cup on one side of his chest. Weird. About five inches above his mastectomy scar.

His wife came in and smiled at me. I told her how agitated he seemed. “Pain meds,” she said, “are due.” She talked to him and asked about his pain. “Does it hurt?” she said in a regular voice into his ear. “Yes,” he mouthed. “Is that a yes? Yes. It hurts. Hang on, baby.” She told him about each medication before she placed the tiny veterinary syringe in his mouth. I gave my cat morphine with an identical plastic syringe last year. Now the morphine is for my friend, with whom I can no longer share anything. No calls, no texts, no visits. He is mostly gone and that is permanent and that is normal and that isn’t strange but it’s unfolding rightnowrighthere. A few other meds, including the one she warned him would taste gross. He made an angry face and kicked at that one. I rubbed his legs.

He began wiggling and wincing. She asked if he hurt. He tried to say something but made no sound and his lips seemed only to say, “vipp.” She asked if his back hurt. He looked as though he’d cry. His back has been terribly painful since the lung surgery that required removing three ribs, 5cm of chest wall, and a baseball-sized tumor. The one the first oncologist missed while treating the rectal tumor, both of which grew because two physicians in a row misdiagnosed him.

“Do you want to roll on your side?” He nodded. We took the sheet and maneuvered him onto his side. It seemed to help. I pulled him over as hard as I could while she jammed a large pillow behind him. Only nurses know how firm and decisively you have to handle an adult patient. Most of us know only nursing teenie tiny newborns with no muscle tone who are relatively easy to position, reposition, and relocate, even if they’re just as hard to understand as an adult who can no longer speak. Getting a full-grown man into position takes so much oomph it seems rough, but I worked to seem just as competent as his wife. Repositioned, he settled a bit. She asked him if that was better, rubbed his shoulder, kissed him repeatedly across the face.

We talked with him a while, and he seemed to settle.

So we went downstairs to let him sleep. Two hours later, I left with a smile, a hole in a deep part of me, and three bags full of empty food containers from mutual friends who’ve cooked for the family over the past two months.

On the midnight drive home I thought about my kids. I thought about his kids. I thought about logistics and seeing their family often. I thought about work and geography and weather and Crimea. I thought of car crashes and cancer and bombings. I thought of gummy bears and law school and literature PhDs.

I can’t tell you that watching my friend die week by week has made me more aware of how lucky we all are to be alive. I’ve had my fair share of close calls, of fire and car crashes and cancer and earthquake, and I’m not one to take the day for granted. But I think more about how a fair percentage of the world’s population wouldn’t consider themselves lucky to be alive. Starvation and illness and lack of clean water and tyranny and abuse and slavery and rape…we all live. And we all die. And none of death is fair or fun, and none of it’s predictable. The fact that my friend is dying way too young is also a part of life. And often, it feels as though none of life itself is directable. There’s a fundamental lack of control to being human that belies most of what we tell ourselves about choice and free will and possibility.

But then there’s love. And there’s a thoughtful couple facing death together. An open, honest, loving family that does their best and makes it work and grieves together and hopes together and plans together and fights together and mourns alone and together and alone again. There is grace in watching a woman love her partner fiercely and love their kids fiercely and stumble and get up and get more fierce…and do it all day every single day for YEARS.

How we die is a microcosm of how we live. And those who panic and claw the walls of their death-bed die in fear. And those who dream of all the wonderful moments of their lives, hallucinate huge family gatherings where those linked by affection for each other cuddle babies and encourage children and jovially engage  each other? They die bathed in the disintegrating brain that is full of good memories and love and joy. When all that crumbles into their body, really, it’s rather sweet to watch. Dreamy sleep eating, incoherent laughing, planning joyful events with beloved touchstones.

Which way will we go? Will our dreams at death’s threshold be painted with the vivid memories of happy, communal gatherings with good food and joyful moments? Or will our death be a nightmare of fear and regret and longing?

Death is interesting to watch. Why does our culture teach us not to dare?

0

Live Like Jay

We don’t get many slumber parties as adults. It’s not every day that grownups get to talk openly and honestly about life, just curled up next to a friend, shifting now and then to get a better look at each other’s eyes as we ask or answer probing questions. One reclining and responding easily and thoughtfully, one lying belly-down on a pillow and making almost constant eye contact, pausing occasionally to find the best way to say things. Pause for a sip of soda, pause for a bathroom break. Then talk some more. About dreams, kids, plans.

I did this as a teenager with one of the few people on the planet who understood me and accepted me for who I was. It’s rare that adults take that kind of time to connect, and more rare that we’re willing to.

Maybe it’s because my friend is dying that we spend our time together this way. And I don’t just mean because he doesn’t get out of bed much anymore. Perhaps because we knew it might be the last time we’d talk together that we were more open and honest.

Or, more accurately, maybe because he’s dying we fast forwarded through of every possible conversation. Talk of work covered the short-term and long-term in about two sentences. Discussion of marriages spanned breadth and depth within a minute.

“How are your kids?” moved quickly beyond this week’s antics to directly answer the implied “and how do you think they’ll handle becoming adults without you?”

“How are you?” skipped the annoying niceties of “fine” to a frank, detailed discussion of what meds are working, which aren’t, which tumor hurts, and where the bed sores will likely start when he’s no longer able to get up and down.

All of this is expected, since we’ve never been shy about the ups and downs of our lives. But some of the moments surprised me because they were so casual. No tears, no shyness. Very clear “I’m glad I know you and I’m glad I saw you today” exchanges that were everything soap-opera death-bed moments are not.

On screen, people make every talk with a dying person seem like a dramatic moment fraught with the most intense human emotions. But in real life, when a friend is almost four years past a cancer diagnosis, discussions aren’t heart-wrenching, sob-inducing epic battles for truth and meaning. There is no portentous music when a friend asks you, “Why can’t I just die? I’m ready. I haven’t felt good in years and years, I’ve said my goodbyes and I’ve done them well, I’ve learned a ton and found grace and moved beyond this world already, so why can’t I just die?”

And there’s no emotional, poignant swallow or gasp or lighting change.

You just answer.

“I don’t know why you can’t just die.  I don’t know. I personally don’t believe that you only get to go if you learn enough, because plenty of people die without learning much at all. And you’ve learned a lot, but that doesn’t mean you’re on hold for something else. I think it just means your body isn’t done yet. Your spirit might be, your mind might be. Your heart might be. But you have no control over what your body does. If you did, this cancer wouldn’t have taken hold. If we could get our bodies to do what we wanted, life would be a whole lot different. So would death. But we get no say. I’m sorry that you don’t.”

There was no fade into another scene after that. No swell of music and dramatic pause for tear-slicked eyelashes. Just mutual shrugs. We talked a bit more about what we believe. Then we talked about our kids again. From the beginning of our relationship, our talk has been about our children, with brief tangents for partners, food, work, and friends. But mostly, children.

His daughter wonders if he’ll live until her birthday. Three weeks.

He hopes not. Because he wants her to grieve and then begin the rest of her life unfettered by his passage out of this world.

I mentioned that her birthday will still be affected by his death, whether it’s recent or impending, so he should do what he needs to do.

His son wonders if he’ll live until the Muppet Movie. A week.

Maybe.

Again, do what you need to do.

I’m a big fan of drama. I want life epic and grand and meaningful. I want something big in every scene.  Especially now. My friends have to leave each other: one on this side of the Great Divide and one on the other. I can’t help them bridge that gap, and it can’t get anymore meaningful that it already is. It’s not about me and it’s not about grand gestures. Life at its most important is powerful and moving and deeply meaningful without aphorisms or orchestral music or pithy goodbyes or garments rent and torn.

All that is for the movies. My friend is not dying in the movies. He’s dying with his family, in his house, surrounded by the goodwill of 99.9% of every person he ever met. That’s the real in this. Real is lying on the bed near him tonight, answering and asking. We listened to each other. We smiled. We made plans.

It probably wasn’t our last conversation. But it was as high-school-slumber-party-with-your-dear-friend as final-days conversations go, and I think that’s about as cinematic as life—and death—gets.

10

Counting Lucky Stars

This week, my little wrecking crew of a three-year-old closed me into the kitchen as I made lunches.
“Shhhhhh,” he said. “I just really need some quiet.”

Whuck?

My shoulders dropped several inches and I breathed the air of joy and silence and adrenaline-dissipation. Peace was mine for at least 30 seconds, and it was sweet.

Later in the week, my little bundle of raw nerves, almost-eight-year-old took a deep breath and started to chill the heck out.
“I just need some space,” he calmly told his shrieking little brother. “I might be allergic to you.”

Again, I measured my relief in decreased tension and increased oxygen intake. I had space to breathe twice in a week? Genuinely, seriously unheard of.

And then, today, two of the boys slated for our impending birthday sleepover party told their moms that they’d really rather attend just the waking hours of the party. I had offered to each family the opportunity to sleep here, or to stay right up until teeth brushing, go home, and return for the morning breakfast and egg hunt.

Having two children opt out of the giggling, silly, late-night horse pucky that is trying to get elementary-school children to sleep? I swear to all that I hold dear…this is a Pope verifiable miracle. This represents three deep breaths in a week, and I am so grateful that I’m going on a tear of charity donations, random acts of kindness, and willful support of those who normally irk me.

I’m almost to the point of skipping, dear readers. Seriously. Life is good, kind, and glorious.

And now that I think of it, it all started when Jimmy Fallon hit some incredible notes on The Tonight Show.

Maybe my unbounded joy, immeasurable good fortune, and serendipitous droplets of magical fairy nectar this week are because of the history of rap.

<iframe width=”640″ height=”360″ src=”//www.youtube.com/embed/0NO0rArJRR4?feature=player_embedded” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen>

Anything amazing happen to you this week?

Was it better than quiet and calm in the midst of two feuding brothers?
Was it better than this?

10

Public Service Announcement

It’s time for a boring and important post.

hug

Would you please make sure you have an emergency bag packed and easily accessible by your front door? Backup glasses, credit card, cash, copies of important documents including prescriptions, thumb drive with your most treasured photos. Please. Now.

Would you please make sure that you have emergency supplies ready in your car? Water, snacks, flares, reflective blankets, signal mirror, matches, first aid including ice packs, bandages, and scissors. Please. Now.

Would you please make sure your legal documents are in order? Power of attorney, will, directives for what happens to your children in case of your sudden incapacitation or death. Copies of passwords, important phone numbers, list of companies to call so your executor has an easier time?

Would you please make sure you’ve signed up for your city’s emergency notification system? They’ll text you in an emergency, and you can forward to your distant relatives so if phones get overwhelmed in an emergency your family can let people know you’re okay.

Would you please make sure you tell your children and friends and family every day something you love about them? Some reason your life is better because they’re in it?

Emergency bag. Car emergency kit. Legal paperwork. Emergency notification. Love.

Do it.
Now.
Please.

43

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.

IMAG4729

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

6

What does your mom do for a living?

My three-year-old is sitting on my lap, typing into a blank Word doc. He pauses every now and then, puts his head in his hands and sighs, “damnit,” then deletes everything he’s typed.

I’m totally winning at this.

As soon as he puts his hands over his eyes, sighs, “dagnabbit,” and then goes to get a snack, my parenting is complete.

 

 

16

Teachable moment about “gay”

index

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.

4

Remedy for a long day

At the end of a long day, during which I went without stopping from 5am-10pm, thirteen hours of which involved preschoolers (plural) and four hours involved careful negotiations with people whom I’m convinced get twice as much sleep as me, I called Spouse.

Me: The meeting’s  finally over and I’ll be home soon so will you please fill the kettle and turn it on? Fill it just to the spout line inside, and make sure the whistle is on or it’ll boil dry. I just want some tea before bed because my throat is sore from talking all day and my body is achy from chasing 30 preschoolers and my brain is achy from budget talks and early morning writing and I just want some tea. Okay?

Spouse: Who is this?

And between the full-belly laugh and the hot cup of tea waiting for me when I got home, I made it through another day I swore might kill me.

 

13

Midlife realities

When I marked the new year in 2012, I was excited about having a whole year in which to contemplate turning forty. There is so much excitement and hope in that number, I thought. I planned for several months how I would celebrate and what intentional shift of priorities I could orchestrate to begin the second half of my life.

I remember my mom’s friends celebrating her fortieth with black balloons and over-the-hill nonsense. Baby Boomers are not known for either perspective or subtlety and over-the-hill parties were very chic. Also the life expectancy was much lower back then and people really thought that 40 was more than halfway to dead.

Now, we are told by dreadful checkout-line magazines and gerontologists alike: fifty is the new forty.

Well I happily anticipated forty, hoping with the milestone that I’d get my life together, get a few more adorable grey hairs, and finally think of myself as adult. I thought a midlife crisis was impossible for me, not just because of this delightfully plucky attitude, but because I have at least three midlife crises a year, and my brain must certainly have hit all the low points of existential crisis by now.

What I didn’t foresee about 40, what I didn’t appreciate about midlife until I got there, is this: the inescapable and rude reality is forty isn’t about goals and perspective and living your best life for the rest of your life.

Forty is about everyone around you slowly dying.

Parents. Friends. Colleagues. The people I care about are having surgeries and tumors and divorces and memorials, not babies and graduations and new jobs. The downward slide of forty isn’t about “oh, boo-hoo I’m not vital anymore.” That’s ridiculous. The reason behind many midlife crises, I’m now finding, is that forty seems tips life from waxing to waning.

We all know mortality as a fundamental truth of the human condition. But we don’t know it as intimately as we will. I remember when my grandparents were in their seventies. Three of four died.  And their friends died. And to me, in my twenties, that was something that old people did.

And they do. Don’t get me wrong. Old people do, in fact, die.

But the shock of forty was that grandparents aren’t the reason we’re at funerals any more. Parents are dying. Contemporaries are dying. Forty is a slap in the face that says, “Guess what? There is very little distance any more between you, those you love, and death. We’re going to fall off this cliff together, and soon.”

Forty is about certainty and camaraderie falling away as one by one the people we know intimately, not the loved ones removed by several generations but the people we need and enjoy and talk to every day, get divorced and sick and sad and angry and, eventually, dead.

Forty means everyone gets dead? Certainly that’s not what I’m saying, and not just because it’s grammatically clunky.  There are still graduations and births and marriages and joy and life left in life after forty.

But we’re not having those moments. We’re watching younger generations have those moments. We’re bystanders. We’re wise, knowing, grey, and wonderful. And we’re attending other people’s joys while engaging in our contemporaries’ decline.

It’s a long march, this life. And there’s a sharp turn at forty after which we must choose to constantly pivot one way to support those we love as they struggle and age and die, then the other to watch those we love grow and become adults and choose their own way and then age and die.

Being the sandwich generation makes it sound as though we’re smothered and gooey and limited on two sides. The reality is much more like standing at the top of the diving platform. To one side there are people climbing and progressing and anticipating. To the other there is an exhilarating plunge into darkness. Forty is standing on that high dive and looking right then left then right then left thenrightthenleftthenrightthenleft and knowing there is limited time to choose. There is no option of climbing back down. The only choices are to enjoy the leap or to clench everything and hit way too hard.

Please don’t tell me that there is plenty of life left after forty. I know that. I’m genuinely happy with the priority shifts I architected before my milestone birthday, the progress I’m making toward goals, the willingness with which I’m ditching expectations and emotional detritus from my life, and the care I’m showing friends and family who are sick or dying. Of course there’s time left for some of us. Lots, in fact.

Somehow I thought rounding that corner of forty would make me grownup.

It did. But not in the way I’d hoped for.

Now that I have glimpsed the reality of growing up, I am watching through tiny cracks between my fingers as we all slide, slowly at first and then more quickly, to the craggy rocks and alligators and piranha and icy waters below.

 

10

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.

10

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.