Sunday, November 28, 2010

Re-Killing the Turkey

Most of you were done on Thursday, but I just waved goodbye to the biggest feast of the season after having twenty in-laws over for a belated Thanksgiving meal last night.

That shriek you hear is the song to my crazed morning-after happy dance.

I am not an entertainer. I want to be. I try. But while some people are born to lay out lavish dinners for multitudes with nary a batted eyelash, I was born to be the rolls and veggie tray girl. It’s not really that I’m such a bad cook (although the facts of last night may point that way). It’s more that I’m a worrier who frets for weeks leading up to the event, and then lets pots boil over onto the stove while the guests arrive. And no matter how much planning I do ahead of time (in the middle of the night when I should be sleeping), I always seem to find myself driving to the store thirty minutes before go time to pick up that one last ingredient that will somehow lift the party from stressed-out mayhem to Martha Stewart perfection.

Last night’s meal involved a turkey—well, a turkey and a ham, because I was sick of turkey after eating leftovers since Thursday, but some of the guests were averse to ham. Ham’s easy (hel-lo, you can get them already cooked and sliced), but I had prepared precisely one turkey in my lifetime, and I think it was about eight years ago (or, roughly, the last time I couldn’t somehow escape hosting duties on Thanksgiving).

Now, you may be thinking that turkey is easy, too, but I beg to differ. Cooking a turkey involves wrestling eighteen pounds of cold, rubbery raw bird flesh onto a pan (brand new, since—duh—I didn’t actually own a roasting pan, which you don’t need for rolls or a veggie tray). First you have to fish out the neck (thanks for including that, Butterball!), and then you need to stand there for ten minutes or so with your arm swirling around the slimy innards while you frantically search for the bag of giblets. I knew they must be there somewhere—I have actually cooked poultry before—but nobody warned me that I should be looking in the turkey’s butt!

Finally (and you might be able to skip this step), I needed to run to the computer to Google how to insert a meat thermometer into “the meatiest part of the thigh.” I’ve eaten chicken thighs, but I wasn’t even sure where to find one on that nasty raw-meat monstrosity. (I think this experience may actually be the tipping point that turns me vegetarian.)

With the thermometer in according to the package directions and the wisdom of the Internet, I set the bird in the oven to cook for the promised four hours while I finished making the rest of the food and setting three tables. (Hubby was away working hard at his very important coaching job and picking up Danger Boy from basketball practice, so it was all on me—yippee!). Forty-five minutes early, the temperature alarm beeped, and I took the now-golden bird out to rest. It looked pretty good! On a whim, though, I decided to check the temp of the suspiciously firm-looking turkey breasts. I know that “firm” and “breasts” can be good in some situations, but I don’t think Thanksgiving dinner is one of those. When I inserted the probe, the meat let out the barest dusty sigh as I discovered with the rapidly rising temperature gauge that I had indeed killed the bird (again!). Damn.

“Gravy, people, you should definitely throw on some gravy. Or try the ham. The ham is great!”

Finally, the work was done, the house cleaned, the borrowed chairs in place, and the food laid out for the hungry masses. My older son looked at the food spread out before him and, sagely, made the observation of the night:

 “The problem with Thanksgiving is that the food isn’t even all that good. We have a whole day centered around turkey. Why don’t we have a day centered around something that tastes good, like hamburgers?”

Now that would be my kind of Thanksgiving! I’ll bring the buns.

Two of three tables... the top one still waiting on the BYOC (bring your own chairs)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

I Got a Rock

Remember the holiday special, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown? I always felt so sorry for Charlie Brown in that show. Every Peanuts special was filled with his failures and social belittlement, but the Halloween special was the worst of all. Remember how he went trick-or-treating—the most delightfully anticipated kid event of the fall season—and got a mean trick instead of a treat at every single house? Each of the other kids got candy and apples and money, but after every door Charlie Brown would say, “I got a rock.”

I know it seems a little out of season, but I think of that TV show every year around this time for my own private reasons. You see, “I got a rock” is the refrain that haunts me as I remember my biggest holiday gift-giving failure ever.

Let me explain.

My older son was born just five days before Christmas, a surprise tax deduction and holiday-plan-changer, since he was not supposed to make an entrance until the end of January. He was fine (if a little pumpkin-colored), but his early entrance meant that he would forever have to share his birthday with the biggest gift-giving holiday of the year.

I’ve always made a big deal about his birthday, with a party and friends and a firm commitment to never have him hear the dreaded words, “happy-birthday-merry-Christmas” as we hand him a two-fer Christmas/birthday gift in one.

When he was younger, I considered celebrating his half birthday instead, but for a number of reasons—including having a cousin born on his first birthday—that never really appealed to him. So that means he gets every gift he’ll receive all year within a five-day period in late December. That can present challenges when you’re trying to think of ideas for a child who already has way too much.

When he was in about fifth grade (I think), he really wanted Guitar Hero for Christmas. That was his entire list. I bought it early and had it waiting to put under the tree. Unfortunately, there was still that other gift-giving occasion to shop for, so I got…well…creative. And while creativity is great if you’re selling napkin rings on, it’s met with just a dash more scorn when you’re cobbling together a “surprise” for an eleven-year-old.

His class had done a unit on rocks and minerals that year, and he had expressed a real interest in collecting his own specimens. He was particularly taken with crystals, and showed me several in books that were especially pretty. So I decided to get him an extra-nice rock collection—including various crystals, geodes, some petrified dinosaur poop, and a professional-grade rock tumbler—as his birthday present. (I know. You can see the problem already, but I was delusional.)

So there we all were on his birthday, gathered around Austin, whose eyes sparkled with anticipation for the Guitar Hero he thought would be in that big box on the table. The paper was torn away, and there it was, stamped clearly across his face as he tried to give me a grateful smile: “I got a rock.”

It’s a beautiful set. Honest! It still sits in its place of shame next to the never-used rock tumbler on a high shelf in the back of his closet, taunting me when I have to reach into those dark recesses to put away something old or unwanted or outgrown. 

An excellent fake smile, whipped out later for the photo op.

These are the lessons I learned from my ill-fated foray into the world of rock hounds:

1.   If two gifts will eventually be given, always start with the video game.
2.   Educational gifts are best left to the grandparents.
3.   Creativity is best for gifts intended for the really old or the really young.

The search is on for two non-geological gifts for this year. Suggestions will be gratefully considered. Good grief!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Question of Feelings

[A note: I really wanted to make this blog post funny, but it didn’t want to come out that way. Some stories are like that.]

My younger son asked me a question that really struck me hard the other night. “Mom,” he said. “What did it feel like—you know, emotionally­—to have a baby that didn’t have all it’s parts?”

Wow. That question really laid it bare. What did it feel like?

To fill in a little background, my son was born with a congenital malformation of his hand and chest called Poland’s Syndrome. It’s really rare­—just one in about 30,000 babies born each year is diagnosed with it worldwide. It’s nowhere on the radar of scary stuff that you worry about when you’re pregnant. Heck, it’s not even on the radar of the doctors and specialists we went to for answers in the years after our birthing room surprise. It took us two and a half years to get a diagnosis even though our son could be a poster child for the condition.

So, how did it feel emotionally? The day he was born started with me nearly skipping into the maternity ward from my scheduled prenatal appointment. The baby was measuring over nine pounds, so they wanted to induce me. It was August, and a couple of days shaved off the end of my third trimester felt a little like an early Christmas. Unfortunately, my big bruiser of a baby was already just a little too big to make it out completely unscathed. A loud crack let me know that my little guy would have some healing to do as his broken clavicle mended in the weeks after he was born.

Then, when they placed him on my chest, I looked down and felt a jolt as he pushed his little left hand up toward my face. Something was clearly wrong. What was wrong with his hand? Was anything else wrong with him? Oh my god, what was wrong with my baby?

It took a while to convince the doctor that the baby didn’t just have his little hand in a fist. I saw my husband drop down to the floor with his head in his hands. My mother kept telling someone to turn off the video camera—a video I've still never brought myself to watch.

How did it feel? The initial wave of shock was followed by fear, wondering what was wrong with my little boy—not knowing if he was facing a lifetime of physical challenges. That was followed almost immediately by awkwardness, as friends and family shuffled into the room with painted smiles on their faces, cooing over his cuteness and remarking on how wonderful it was to have a new little man in our lives. I could tell that they didn’t know how to act, didn’t know what to say. What do you say in a moment like that?

Then we sank into an informational black hole, where answers and understanding were notable only by their absence. I’m an information junkie. I needed to know what had happened and why it had happened and whether I had done something that had caused it. Did I eat the wrong foods? Sleep too long on my back? Was it that fever I had back in December? And then there was the biggest question of all: What could I do to fix it?

We had to wait six weeks to see the pediatric orthopedist, and that was considered a short wait in the medical world—a favor to our pediatrician. I spent those weeks touching my baby’s little hand, feeling for bones that I was sure were just hiding under the skin, waiting for the miracle surgeon to reshape them into a normal hand.

The surgeon, unfortunately, was unaware that he was supposed to be my son’s salvation. We were a pretty routine, unimpressive case to him (and, frankly, the man had the bedside manner of a goat). There wasn’t much he could do, although he did eventually perform one small surgery to widen the web space and improve Caden’s grasp. When I asked him that first day if there were any support groups we could turn to, he told us we could head up to the children’s hospital, but that we’d feel stupid because our son’s hand was not a big deal. In hindsight, it turns out he was right, but it sure felt like a big deal at the time.

Weeks turned to months, and every single day brought the same questions from strangers. The checkers at the grocery store and the people walking by us at the mall would all turn to me and say, “Excuse me. Can I ask what happened to his hand?” I’m sure they thought they were being polite enough and that they were just expressing their curiosity, but every single time, I felt like that stranger was looking at me and saying, “Excuse me, but what the hell did you do wrong while you were pregnant?” And I’d look back and think, “Yeah, what the hell did I do wrong?”

I’d sit at home imagining snappy responses to the daily barrage of questions: “His hand? Holy crap! What happened to his other fingers? They were there when I left home!” or “Shark bite! Bit ‘em clean off.” But every day, instead, I’d shrink down inside myself and say, “I don’t know what happened. He was just born that way. He does great with both of his hands. He’ll be just fine.” One woman working in a nail salon actually responded back, “Well, he might be fine now, but when he grows up, he’s going to want fingers! If that happened to me, I’d kill myself!” I haven’t had my nails done since.

Eventually, though, two things happened that changed everything. The first was that we finally got a diagnosis. After years of pushing and questioning, I found a specialist intrigued enough to do some digging after we left his office. He called me three days later with the term “Poland’s Syndrome,” and it was like someone finally switched on a light in the room. Pair the name of anything—even something obscure and rare—with the power of the Internet, and suddenly you go from being all alone in a bizarre and unexpected reality to befriending moms in southern California and Europe and Australia who are all going through the same exact experience you are. Knowledge brought comfort and camaraderie and a measure of peace from the “what did I do” questions that had echoed through his early years.

The second and most profound thing that happened was that Caden became, well… Caden. First, he developed the most shockingly blue eyes I’d ever seen. Strangers would stop me on the street, not to ask about missing fingers, but to tell me how beautiful my son’s eyes were. As time passed, he also developed an incredibly buoyant, uncommonly confident personality to go with his baby blues. He has actually known people—both kids and adults—who had no idea he was missing parts even after being around him for months.

How does it feel these days? I’ve passed through shock and denial, self-blame and fierce protectiveness… and now? I think I’ve definitely reached acceptance. I honestly don’t think  much about his hand—or his chest, which will be a bigger deal when his muscles start developing—day-to-day any more, but I also can’t imagine him without it. His “lucky hand” is part of his uniqueness, so much a part of his quirky self-image that I can’t picture him with a boring old matched set. He’s got the personality to confidently whip out the “shark bite” quip with a laugh, and I know he’ll be the guy who wins bets in college about being able to put his whole hand in his mouth.

How did it feel—emotionally—to have a kid who was missing parts? It felt a lot like it feels to have any kid. You love them, and you hurt when they hurt. You growl like a mama bear when the world makes them sad, and you hope that their future holds every single possibility that could make them happy. When my kid scores a goal or wins an award at school, though, our high-fives are missing a couple of digits (“Gimme three! Woo hoo!”).

Postscript: Several years ago, after finally getting Caden’s diagnosis, we were traveling down to California to visit my sister and her family. We stopped at a restaurant to get everybody some food, and the waitress came by with an odd expression on her face. “Excuse me,” she said. “Can I ask you a question about his hand?” I remember smiling, feeling so much calmer that time because I knew I finally had some answers to share. “Sure, I said. What do you want to know?”

“I hate to ask,” she started. “It’s just… I just had a baby with a hand exactly like that, and I don’t know what happened or what else might be wrong with him. I’m just so worried and I don’t know what to do!”

You’d think I would have learned to expect the unexpected.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Laundry Lessons (Or How I Escaped the 1950s)

I taught my 8th grade son how to do laundry yesterday. It’s been long overdue, I know, and I apologize to his future wife for letting it go this long. Sometimes it's just less painful to do it than to teach it. But his highness and I finally reached a tipping point on Saturday night. Yup. Right in the middle of preparing dinner, Mom went on strike.

OK, it was a really short strike, lasting just long enough for me to turn off the burners, abandon the half-cooked meal in the pans on the stove, and drive to the closest Starbucks for a mocha and a much-needed timeout with a good book. But I think I made my point. A little. I hope.

You see, I am the lone female in a family populated by boys. It’s testosterone soup around here—all puppy dog tails and Axe body spray. I’ve always considered myself a bit of a feminist, really, but somehow I’ve let my life devolve into a snapshot of 1950s domestic bliss, with Mom in charge of the inside of the house while Dad takes care of the lawn. I’ve even been known to greet my dear husband wearing heels, a ladylike dress and an apron (with a bow in my ponytail) just to make a point about how far from the ideal modern balance we’ve fallen. Unfortunately, the point actually taken was that there was something oddly alluring about June Cleaver waiting for him all dolled up after work. But I digress.

My husband would have been a perfect mid-20th-century provider. He works hard, takes great care of the yard, and successfully fixes almost anything that breaks (and that’s saying a lot in the realm of Danger Boy and Captain Chaos). He’s a great guy—a catch (according to him)—but he doesn’t cook. This despite many attempts by me to get him interested in the process (“It’s just following directions… like building a ‘some assembly required’ bookcase...”). And because he doesn’t cook, my boys have grown up with a horrifyingly sexist vision of how things work in the kitchen and around the house in general. Mom cooks; everyone else sits down when it’s ready and then rushes off to their very important soccer and basketball practices while Mom does the dishes.

To make matters worse, my older son has suddenly transformed from a generally likeable kid into (and it pains me to say this) a teenager. And just like everything else my oldest has taken on in life, he has embraced this metamorphosis with uncommon gusto. Whereas some teens may be occasionally surly, mine is like a sorority girl on PMS… every single day.

So, back to dinner and the laundry. I had been battling with the 13-year-old dark phantom all day. Every small step toward accomplishing anything was met with open hostility and scorn. Attempts to elicit help or even basic civility were devoured by the teenage wraith and expelled as unrecognizable emotional shrapnel. So, when my husband walked through the door after being away for hours scouting a high school basketball game (for his very important other job as a high school coach) it didn’t take much to send me over the edge into my Starbucks seclusion. (I'm usually more stable than this. Honest.)

The very next day, I decided that the time had come to end all of this ridiculous 1950s let’s-let-Mom-do-it garbage once and for all. The kid needed some life skill training and a bit more respect for how hard his parents (especially his sainted mother) work for him every day. I decided that since cooking required dishwashingand since our last lesson in cooking involved me forgetting to mention that hot bacon grease does not get washed down the sink when you’re done fryingI’d start with something simpler: doing his own damn laundry.

Shockingly, he was oddly receptive to the whole idea (“This is easy! I don’t know why you guys complain about this so much.”). He made his way through the two-and-a-half loads of post-teenage-boy grungies on his bedroom floor, and ensured that he would indeed have fresh boxers to wear on Monday morning (without yelling at Mom about it—what a concept).

The upside of all of this is that Grumble-butt now knows how to launder his own dirty drawers, meaning he will have one less thing to grouse about in the dark mom-hasn't-had-coffee-yet hours as he prepares for school  And maybe my son will not be completely helpless when I send him out into the world in the not-too-distant future. The downside is that I forgot to explain that not everything goes in the dryer after it has been washed (forgetting the important follow-up lessons is getting to be a pattern with me). To complete that final half load, the boy had grabbed a few of my sweaters and, um… underpinnings to fill the machine. [Sigh]

So, if you know any eight-year-old girls who like to wear somewhat motherly but now-so-very-small freshly cleaned sweaters, drop me a line. I’ll just be sitting here in a borrowed Aéropostale sweatshirt and some nice clean boxers waiting for my laundryman to get home from school.

P.S. If you want the greatest picture book ever for teaching these lessons to your own little boys, check out Piggybook, by Anthony Browne.


Saturday, October 30, 2010

He Said What?

One thing that helps make up for all of the whining and fighting and stinky body fluids involved in parenting two boys is the fact that kids are just so darned funny. I think that’s by design—it keeps us from chucking them to the curb when they hit the teenage years. The best stuff comes when they’re trying to be dead serious or when their innocence and cluelessness run smack into their firm conviction that they know it all.

So, in the spirit of enjoying my boys as the goofballs they so frequently can be, here are my top-five (or at least five I can remember today) things my kids said or did that made me laugh.

#5. Yeah, Mom… you’re hilarious (looking)
The other night at dinner, my 13-year-old gave me this one: “Oh… you want your blog to be funny? It’s only supposed to be funny for, like, other 40-year-old moms, right? Yeah. Cause you’re nailin’ it.”
* Life lesson #4263 - Remember that Mom has a never-ending stash of  
       those pictures when you start popping off at the dinner table. And she blogs.

#4. What does a duck say?
Both of my kids had some enunciation issues early on. Austin had a little trouble with the “qu” sound, which he pronounced as “ff.” Why does it seem like every board game and book we had back then asked the oh-so-provocative question: “What does the duck say?” His response? “FFaaack! Fack, fack, fack, fack, fack…”

In a similar vein, Caden decided that his favorite song—right at the time he couldn’t pronounce his N’s—was “Play that Funky Music White Boy.” Oh, boy. He also switched his B’s and D’s, so we heard an awful lot about him playing with his “doll” and his “dike” for a while. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

#3. Douche!
When Austin was just learning to talk, he had a few multipurpose words that applied to more than one thing. The fun part was trying to decipher what he really meant. One of these oft-used words wassadly“douche.” Really. It meant both “shoes” and “juice.” I remember many, many trips to the mall that were punctuated by loud drawn-out cries of “Doooouuuuche! Dooooouuuche!” He’d keep up his Summer’s Eve chant until I could figure out if he was thirsty, had lost his baby Chuck Taylors, or just wasn’t feeling springtime fresh. “Dooooouuuuuche!”

#2. Bone stickers
Back when my oldest was about seven, the boys were watching one of those funny home video TV shows, and a clip came on showing a toddler with panty liners stuck all over his head. The audience was roaring with laughter, and Austin turned to us and said, “I don’t get it. What are those things?” His little brother looked at him and replied with the earnest conviction of a knows-everything three-year-old, “Those are bone stickers!” [Duh!] Austin looked at us quizzically and answered, “I still don’t get it.”

And finally, my number one favorite kid giggle…

#1. Hey, Dude!
Some of you have seen this before, but this may be my favorite kid-mispronunciation of all time. It’s Caden back in about 2004, earnestly singing that Beatles classic, Hey Dude. It still makes me smile every time I see it.

So, what do your kids say and do that makes you giggle? Please share! (Really... down there in the comments. It'll be fun for everybody!)

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Recess Doodies

To be fair, I’m pretty sure the actual term for the women who police the fields and playground at my son’s school is “duties” (referring to instructional assistants on “recess duty”), but the homophone epithet is just too perfect to ignore. Long before kids are able to dole out truly nasty put-downs, they toss around words like “doodie-head” to lash out at the bad guys in their world. And if you listened to either of my kids describe their interactions with these playground patrollers at our local elementary school, you’d understand that the lazy pronunciation is really not an accident.

I’m sure these women are perfectly lovely human beings (really), but they seem to have forgotten something fundamental about elementary school: recess is the kids’ domain.  Or at least it should be. It’s their one chance to run and play and be imaginative and silly in a school day that has become more and more about preparing kids for standardized tests and less about allowing kids to be… well… kids.

Recess is where we all learned to navigate the challenges and politics of daily life. Bobby won’t play nice on the kickball field? Good luck getting picked for a team tomorrow. Molly won’t share the tetherball? Have fun playing solo, kid. This is our children’s best opportunity to develop negotiating skills and the ability to problem-solve their own small life crises. As parents, we know that we aren’t helping our children when we jump in and solve all of their problems. How did the school miss the memo on that?

The playground rules seem infinite and arbitrary (at least to my independent, raised-in-the-70s inner child). Want to take a turn on the swing? Any other kid waiting can count to twenty and you’ll have to get off. (Can you even get a good knee-pump going in twenty seconds?) Flag football, which was my son’s favorite game at the start of the year, has now been divided up into official teams. You can only play on certain days, and then only on your designated team. The “doodies” have split up pairs of friends (because they might pass to each other more than they do to the rest of the team); best buds are scheduled to play on opposite days. My son doesn’t play flag football anymore.

Basketball and tag are both forbidden (people could get hurt). Foursquare has an adult moderator who will send you walking if you stay in the server square too long. “Bump” (a basketball-ish game) has been renamed “shoot” because the grownups don’t like the ball-bumping required for the original game. Transgressions of any degree will earn you a recess “standing on the wall” (which kind of reminds me of this).

The wall’s purpose is twofold: to force kids to stand still during a time when they should be moving, and to hold them up to the ridicule of their peers, who know only too well what it means to stand “on the wall.” ("Ooooooh! You're in Trou-ble!") Do either of those sound like logical consequences for playing unfairly in a soccer game or serving up an illegal hit in wall-ball?

Is it any wonder the kids are a little antsy when they get back to class? The adults have stolen their free time and turned it into a regimented outdoor disappointment. Grownups have usurped their opportunity to learn how to interact without strict guidance.  The kids can’t play tag, for crying out loud.

Believe it or not, I used to be a teacher. I do understand the need for some order and control on the playground. But I also believe that we can do a better job of using misbehaviors as teachable moments and retain some of the fleeting time that kids get during the day to actually move.

I’d like to hear your ideas. What has worked at your kids’ schools? What do you think? Please join in the conversation!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Health Baby Mea Culpa

I failed as a Health Baby grandma! My son earned a 97% for the time he spent watching the “baby” (with only one small mistake), but during my short stint babysitting, I managed to almost kill the kid. On the time-stamped computer printout, I was busted for letting the baby’s head snap back three times, missing a diaper change, and even neglecting to feed the little guy within the four-minute window.

How did my own boys survive me?

Truthfully, I feel terrible, but not for little JaKobe, who I think should learn to be a little more patient on the diaper change thing. My real kids had to man up and tough it out on occasion while I navigated the slalom course of our life to get to the source of their discomfort. But I do feel terrible for my real son, who slumps and slouches through the day at school to mask the fact that he is, in fact, proud of his straight-A average (which is now in serious jeopardy). If he had a timed computer printout gauging my performance, it would have shown a major downward blip right about sixth period as he received his Health Baby report.

You see, I made him go to his refereeing gigs that day. I insisted that he leave the “baby” with me (“I parented two kids of my own! I can handle a doll… jeeez!”). It’s his first job, and I thought that canceling on his employers because of the Health Baby set a bad precedent. And really, how many dads can just quit their jobs because having a baby at home is too hard? (Thoughts on paternity leave would make an interesting future post, though…)

And then I blew it as the Health Baby’s grandma. Damn. I really thought parenting imaginary kids was one of my fortes. Little Jessica and Jennifer, my imaginary twins (whom I named back in 6th grade) are doing splendidly. They never fight, they keep their rooms clean, and they have never once told me “I hate you”, no matter how badly I screwed up. [Sigh] Imaginary kids are so sweet!

Back in reality, my other real-life kid spent the weekend moaning on the couch with a 102º fever. I cooled his brow, brought him juice and Tylenol, and—in the moments when he felt a little better—played cribbage and battleship on a TV tray by his sickbed. I read him stories and gave him hugs, and when he was finally feeling better last night, he gave me a big squeeze and said, “You are the best mom in the world. Thank you for taking such good care of me while I was sick.”

I guess I’m one for two for the weekend. That’s not so bad, really. But I wouldn’t ask me to babysit your baby any time soon if I were you.

* Update: I went to conferences yesterday (arena-style at the middle school), and every parent I ran into already knew the sad story of my failure as a doll-watcher. You could see the reproachful chuckle in their eyes. My conference with the health teacher started with, "So... the baby..." I'm infamous for my ineptitude as a pretend baby-grandma. Jeez.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Lessons from Health Baby

Health Baby has come to visit for the weekend. This computerized simulator is here to convince my son that parenthood should be postponed until he no longer values sleep or—really—any uninterrupted time to himself. Little JaKobe (as my son has named him) cries and fusses frequently. As soon as he starts, you rub a magnet over his chest to trigger a timer that tests how quickly you can figure out which of four things might be wrong with the little guy. Is he hungry? Does he need to be burped or rocked or changed?

JaKobe sleeps for hours (you can listen to him breathing), and then he eats like a locust until he tires out again and naps, saving up his energy for the wee hours of the morning. It’s good to see a little realism written into the program. When he needs a diaper change, he’ll scream piercingly until you rub the magnet in the new diaper across his little tush, at which point, he’ll instantly coo with contentment. (Isn’t that just exactly how it went for your babies?)

It’s funny to watch a teenage boy growing more and more panicked as he struggles to decipher the baby’s cries. “What’s wrong with you?” he pleads. I so remember asking that more than a few times in the years before my kids could tell me where it hurt. Health Baby is (as you might imagine) much easier than a real child, though. I babysat the little doll this afternoon as my son went to his job as a soccer ref, and it was reassuring to know that there was always an answer to the “what’s wrong” question. (I wonder what the neighbors thought when they walked by and saw me patting the little half-naked baby against my shoulder in the living room.)

But really, Health Baby could go a long way toward being more realistic. Those changed diapers are completely fragrance-free. I want little JaKobe to give my son a realistic, full-fledged messy blow-out. You know, the squishy yellow-brown smear that goes up the back, soaks through the onesie, and leaks all over your last pair of clean jeans.

As my son nonchalantly changes that magnetic diaper, I’d like JaKobe’s little anatomically correct penis to do what little boy parts do when you remove the diaper (they don’t just make these for the fun of it), and for him to realize that that’s going to be the closest he’ll get to a shower all day. So when his sweet “Health Wife” gets home at the end of the day, he might be standing there weeping just a little, with a yellow smear on his jeans and dried pee crusting in his hair.

I don’t know if I ever realized how much of parenthood would revolve around other people’s bodily functions. Of course I knew there’d be diapers, but I didn’t think about the fact that they’d still be in diapers when they were eating solid food. Or that corn doesn’t change in any noticeable way after it’s been eaten by a child, so that when it’s running down their leg at the park, you can clearly see last night’s dinner. And I didn’t know that some kids could be champion-grade pukers either, so prone to vomiting that a simple cough can set them off. As the real-life parent, you get to be the one wiping it off and washing it away, while at the same time comforting and kissing and loving the producer of all that stomach-churning goo.

More than just the absence of excrement, though, Health Baby falls short of reality in one very fundamental way. Baby JaKobe only has four reasons to cry. That’s it. My son knows that if he tries each remedy for a minute, one of them will eventually work. Every parent who’s ever spent a long, dark night walking the halls with a squalling baby—wondering what’s wrong, aching over the cries of the child, begging the little one for a clue—knows that sometimes babies just cry. Sometimes they can’t be consoled. Comforting a baby sure as heck doesn’t happen in the span of a four-minute countdown. And it doesn’t end on Monday. Real babies don’t get turned back in to the health teacher at the end of a long weekend.

Still, I’m pretty sure I won’t be babysitting for my son again any time soon. So, really, this is the best health assignment ever.

* For an update on the Health Baby experiment, see Health Baby Mea Culpa.

Friday, October 22, 2010

What I Learned from the Boy Wonder

The picture was taken about seven years ago, and I distinctly remember laughing as I took it. There, fighting the forces of evil in our suburban backyard, were Batman Beyond and his faithful sidekick, whose name (I discovered later) was “Not Robin”. It was even abbreviated in paper letters on his chest: NR.

When you look at the picture, the first thing you notice is the disparity between the two caped crusaders’ getups. Batman is dressed in the finest post-Halloween authentic made-in-China polyester costume, complete with a mask and flowing red bat wings (or whatever those are supposed to be). His poor little brother is dressed in what can only be described as… well… tinfoil chaps.

Not Robin (NR for short) was happy to be wearing his invented disguise, complete with a small stick (for what purpose, I can only imagine). The ragtag, second-string nature of his costume was a perfect foreshadowing of the years to come. He is a boy with a closet bulging with a never-ending assortment of slightly worn tee shirts, pants and pullovers. I take him to buy new things every year… I do! But we both get to the store and shrug, realizing that his brother grew out of the same exact stuff the year before. He doesn’t seem to mind yet. For a ten-year-old boy, a shirt is a shirt is a shirt.

On a deeper level, my second son is living his whole life sporting a not-quite-as-complete little boy costume. He was born missing some parts, a topic that I’m sure will fill other posts as I explore the many ways parenthood has been a surprise. The most obvious difference for my son is his little left hand. He has only three fingers, and they don’t bend the way yours or mine do. He is different, forced by the circumstances of his life to be the one not in the standard costume. But the great thing I’ve learned from my confident Boy Wonder is that it’s really OK.

He loved being different when he defiantly proclaimed that he was Not Robin back at age three. He loves being different now, as he waves his “lucky” hand at his classmates, knowing he will never be the kid they just can’t place in their yearbook.

When he was born, I thought he might be defined by what was missing. I worried that all the other kids had the expected gear and the right appearance to make their way as painlessly as possible in the world, but my son would have to struggle to find his place. I wanted to buy him the whole ensemble, to give him my own if I could. But I couldn’t, and he taught me—and I will share with you more in the future—that it is OK to delight in proudly wearing your own handcrafted tinfoil chaps. Every Halloween, you may see a hundred little Batmans, but I’ll bet there’s only one Not Robin.

A Separate Piece

Last Friday, my older son called to say he’d missed the bus home from school and wanted to walk over to a friend’s house to hang out until the football game that night. My husband took the call, and I heard him start to say goodbye with a quick, “Be careful crossing the highway.”

My heart froze, and I felt that tear-fighting squeeze at the back of my throat. I leapt up and heard myself shrieking, “No! You will not cross the highway! No! Give me that phone!” The conversation that followed, predictably, deteriorated from there as my almost fourteen-year-old son responded with typical middle-school disdain as I dug in my heels and threatened ridiculous months of grounding if he so much as set foot on that road. He’s a good kid, the responsible type who typically enjoys a lot of freedom and has plenty of experience getting around on his own. But there I was going apoplectic on him because he wanted to cross a street without me. “God, Mom, chill out!”

I remember when I first brought him home from the hospital. I felt like the most fragile and precious piece of myself had been thrust out into the world, becoming this separate being with nothing to shield it from harm. Before that, if someone had asked me what the most awful thing that could ever happen in my life would be, I would have offered a list of physical catastrophes that could happen to me: cancer…paralysis…death. After he was born, though, the worst things in my world had nothing to do with me and everything to do with this fragile, separate being. Why on earth were they sending him home with me? I didn’t know anything about keeping him safe! Our car had never seemed as powerful or as ominous as it did on the day we strapped him in for the very first time to drive home from the hospital.

Several years ago, when I was still working as a teacher, I had a student named Aaron. He was a bright, mischievous, redheaded ten-year-old with a big, friendly smile. One day, he and a buddy walked down the street near where we live to grab a snack at McDonalds. He stood waiting at the light, and when the walk signal told him to go, he stepped out into the crosswalk spanning the highway (yes, that highway). His friend was just about to step out behind him when a car came speeding through the red light, killing Aaron and then driving away.

I often think about Aaron’s mother, about that separate piece of her heart that was horrifyingly run down that day. I think about her face, about the pain and numbness I saw there after the accident. I think about her brave decision to donate his organs so that another mother’s worst days could be forestalled. I wonder how she got out of bed the next day. And the day after that. And how she faced all of the tomorrows filled with the hollow echo of the milestones and celebrations her son would never see.

My son thinks I’m a freak, if I believe what he said on the phone Friday afternoon. I’m lame and weird and completely unhinged. Maybe he’s right. But there is this vulnerable, separate piece of me walking around out there, battling the torments and pitfalls and trials of adolescence. I think I should get a pass on the occasional freak-out. Of course I’ll let him fall sometimes. He has to fall to learn to get back up. Of course he’ll make mistakes. He has to make mistakes to appreciate the times when he gets it right. But as long as the worst thing that could happen in my world is so awful that I can’t even think about it without feeling this tightening in my throat, I will sometimes step in and be the embarrassing, lame, mortifying and overbearing bad guy. I have to.