Monthly Archives: May 2008

All aboard

            The trains.  The trains began before he could walk, before he could talk.  Just the sight of a train would make his arms and legs start pumping as we held him in our arms.

            By the time he was two, he had discovered the little blue engine.  It began with a few books, a couple of toys, and it burgeoned, until he was the prime target for the marketing of all Thomas shows and all wooden tracks.  Since we have a hard time saying no to books, we owned no fewer than twenty books about the various trains on the Fat Controller’s railway.  And these were very, very boring books.

            We are, however, a little more firm about toys.  We try to buy only toys that will actually get used, things we can be pretty sure the kids will find new and creative ways to use for some time to come.  We are trying to keep our house free of pieces parts and abandoned board games.

            Given the force of Zachary’s passion, we indulged.  Birthdays, Chanukah, and visits with the grandparents all netted him new trains, new tracks, new accessories.  Remember, there are eight nights to Chanukah.  We have a lot of trains.

            The Thomas affair lasted a year and a half.  We went to meet the little blue guy live and in person train – twice.  By this time, Benjamin had discovered the trains.  A sucker for anything on wheels and a coveter of whatever his brother has, even before he could walk he would infuriate Zach by crashing through an elaborate line set up on the living room floor. 

            And then it stopped.  We still read the books, Benjamin still grabbed a train or two at times, but Zach lost interest.  He went from building road blocks and inventing cargo runs to other interests, like coloring, play dough, and whining.  The train bin sat abandoned.  I did not regret the investment, as those trains had consumed him for more than a third of his life, but I was sad to find his first love affair was over.  I felt a little sorry for Salty and Toby and all the rest as they gathered dust in the corner of our temporary apartment.

            And then, one day, like the phoenix or a certain son of God, they rose again.  One day, I noticed that Benjamin (22 months old) was spending a lot of time sitting in one place, focusing on a single activity, an unprecedented state of affairs.  As I held my breath, I pulled out the bin.  I set up a track for him.  And then I retreated.  Forty-five minutes later, he was still completely absorbed.

            Zachary came home and found his brother deep in train play but unable to set up his own tracks.  And the love was rekindled.  Now, Zach takes one end of the room, with his buffers and his level crossings.  Ben takes the other end of the room, with his bridges and tunnels.  Somehow, he has learned the names of all the trains without being taught, and I hear him crowing “Emily!” like he has found a long lost friend as he pulls out a certain green engine. 

            Suddenly, I can get things done again.  Sometimes, I can even get Zach to set up the tracks for his little brother.  The world has re-opened.

            Mornings begin now with Benjamin busting out of his room shouting “Trains.  Have to play trains!”  And the Sodor railway is once again running on time.

Check your identity at the door

            “Why did I never know you have a Masters in architecture?”  Why, indeed.  The woman asking had a degree in urban planning.  She had known her acquaintance for years.  Their children played together and went to school together.  They had spoken to each other every single day for years.  But she had no idea that they had this common interest.

            Six years prior, they would probably have learned this about each other the first time they met.  They would have talked about urban theorists, perhaps tossing about opinions on Jane Jacobs.  They would have compared their career paths and what the hell one can do with that background in this market.

            But, now, they stand, waiting for pickup time, and chat about their children.  They chat about their husbands’ jobs.  They talk about politics and weather and celebrity sightings.  But, they never talk about themselves.  Not really.

            We can tell each other about night wakings and compare picky eaters.   But we cannot ask about our pasts.  To ask is sensitive.  “What did you do?” implies you are no longer who you were.  “What do you do?” puts the respondent in the awkward position of saying “I’m just home with the kids.”  We avoid the topic altogether. Even those who are still working in paying jobs are clandestine, quiet about their careers. 

            We check our identities at the door.  Someday we will find them again, but not right now. So careful to avoid shaming other mothers, we lose who we are.  But, I am holding that claim check tight, baby, and I intend to pick that identity up again one of these days.

Expertise

           A Thursday night.  The boys finally in bed, after the fateful coffee-table-removal incident.  8:07 finds me unloading the dishwasher, having finished looking up “concussion – signs and symptoms” on the web.  My cell rings, and I know it is my husband, calling to check in before the last few hours of his work day.

            Except it is not.  The name that comes up on my phone is the only other person I always answer for.  I pick up the phone and skip over the formalities.  “I have moved the coffee table onto the balcony.”

            “Oh, no!” she says.  “What happened?”

            “Zachary gets his brother all riled up, then can’t understand why he gets hurt or Benjamin bites him.  If that table is going to keep attacking Zach, it will need to stay outside.”  She laughs.  “What’s up?” I ask.

            “I know it’s probably a bad time.  I know you’re probably putting the boys to bed.”

            “Nope.  Boys are in bed, and Zach is already asleep, now that I have determined he has no signs of a concussion.”

            “Oh, then good.  Can I ask you a grammatical question?”  This, you must understand, is mostly why people call me.  I taught high school for three years, college for four.  I have three advanced degrees in things like education and English.  And I read a lot.  Actually, I used to read a lot.  Now I wipe poopy bottoms a lot and read on alternate Tuesdays when the moon is full.  People seem to trust me when it comes to grammar.

            “Sure.  In fact, there is nothing I would like better tonight.”  That may sound weird, but grammar makes me happy.  It is my comfort zone.  I know the answers here, and I can assert a certain order on the world that is pretty absent from the rest of life.  After a tough day, straightening out someone’s sentences is oddly relaxing.

            She is editing a document on U.S. torture methods at certain detention centers that will remain nameless so that this blog does not come up on someone’s search.  She wanted to know whether the quotes in which the prisoners quoted the guards needed double and single quotes if there were no actual words of the prisoners included in the quote.  In other words, if you are quoting a prisoner quoting a guard, but the guard’s quote is the only one included, do you still need single quotes?

            She read me a quote as an example, and, knowing me, she chose one of the milder ones.  “I’ll answer your question,” I responded.  “But please don’t read me any more quotes from the report.”

            As usual, her grammatical instincts were on target, and the single quotes were jettisoned.  Unfortunately, someone had been pushing her to use single and double quotes, insisting that she would know this if she were familiar with a style guide.  “Well,” I responded, “I am familiar with several style guides, and I can tell you that grammar tries to be streamlined whenever possible.”

            We chatted for a few more minutes, talking about a bridal shower she would be attending that weekend, and then we hung up the phone.  She returned to her report detailing the ways my government acts in my name to torture detainees.  I settled in to peanut butter ice cream and some blog reading to recover from the coffee table catastrophe.  No one sends me reports of international importance to edit; no one asks me to monitor elections; nothing I do gets dictatorial regimes to accept aid for their dying populace after a natural disaster.  I am the girl who knows about apostrophes and never misuses the semi-colon.

            Another day when my total contribution to the planet involved keeping my children alive, some carbon emissions, and the elimination of a couple of quotation marks.

Perchance to dream

This post dedicated to Flutter and Angela and all the others.

            The dreams are nightly, and they are intense.  Partly, of course, this is due to the pregnancy hormones.  Pregnant dreams are vibrant and alive in a way people who have never had them cannot completely comprehend.  But, that is only a partial explanation.  I can account for their intensity, but not for their subject matter.

            I have been dreaming of my father lately.

            I do not dream of his wife, the woman who hurt me so thoroughly and so frequently throughout my childhood.  I do not dream of the physical pain.  I dream of him.  Now.  Seeing him now.  I dream of buying their house.  I dream of confronting him. 

            There is not the same fear as before, although there is still anxiety.  I am still not sanguine about the idea of seeing the man with so little parenting instinct that he let his children disappear from his life.  Those of you with children just try to imagine this.  He let his children simply disappear from his life. 

            I am sure the stress of living a temporary, rootless life just now contributes to these dreams.  And I am not surprised.  The last year has been about healing, coming to terms, growing, and letting go.  But I am not naïve.  There is pain that never goes away.  There are sadnesses we cannot get over.  They will stay with us.

            The best we can ever hope for is to learn how to process them better.  You cannot put your past behind you any more than you can go home again. 

            “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”  F. Scott Fitzgerald was buried under the famous last line of his most famous book.  (And, yes, I know the line by heart.  And, yes, I have visited his grave.  I have never denied being a dork.)  Fitzgerald, he never learned how to steer the boat and was at the mercy of the current.  If we can learn to navigate and work with the current as it flows, we can move forwards even as we accept the waters of the past.

             Pregnant with my third child, worrying about my sons, building a career that fills me with hope, feeling closer than ever to my husband even though I never fucking see him, I accept those dreams for what they are – part but not the sum of me. 

            Welcome to the rest of my life.

These wheels

            One year ago Sunday, I took the plunge.  On May 24, 2007 I had never read a blog.  By May 26, I was writing my second post and actively reading other people’s.

            It all started with an email.  Hurtful, personal, perhaps even cruel, the email made me look for an outlet, a place to work through my pain and feelings of rejection.  And so it snowballed.  First, only people who know me read.  It did not take long till I found a community of people around the world, strangers who quickly became familiar with my most intimate secrets.

            For awhile, my blog was growing.  More people were reading, and it was an ego boost to look at those blog stats.  But, lately, as I have had less time to read blogs daily, the numbers have dwindled.  I do not blame people; we are involved in an exchange here, and for awhile I was unable to keep up my end.  But it makes me all the more grateful to those of you who stuck it out through my rough patch.

            I will likely never be a big-time blogger.  That’s not why I do it.  I want to record my children’s lives for them.  As a writer, I want to hone my voice.  And, as a person, blogging keeps me honest. 

            And that is the truth of it.  With people there reading, commenting, I can hold myself accountable.  And that has forced me to be a better mother and wife, but it has also given me a place to forgive myself for my failings.

            A year ago, I did not self-define as a writer.  I was good at writing, I had worked as a speech writer, but I squirmed whenever anyone asked me what I do.  Today, I have a manuscript, an agent, and confidence.  More importantly, I am happier with who I am and where I am going.

            I don’t use my kids’ real names.  I don’t post pictures.  I keep out some sensitive stories.  But, I can say without a doubt that my children are happier because I have this space.  They benefit from the community of strangers, friends, and people with the same last name I have found here.

            So, happy blogiversary to me.  To us.  To those of you who have been here since last May and those of you who have hopped on the bus along the way.  Today, today, please leave a comment or send an email so I know who you are, even if you don’t usually do so, even if you think I know.  I want to know personally who to thank for the miles I have come over the last year.

            This bus ride is just getting started, and I could not ask for better companions.

Seems this week has a theme

This is for all of you who have so thoughtfully commented this week, and specifically for Sara, whose son feels the same way.  By the way, Sara, tomorrow is pajama day at school.  I know what your child would be wearing.

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            After journeying with Peter Pan and screaming with Mr. Toad, it was time to fly with Dumbo, a ride that is non-threatening both because it involves pastel elephants and because the kids can tell from the outside exactly what they are in for.  Even though we were one of the last families to load, Zachary managed to score a pink elephant with his father, while Benjamin and I giggled just in front in a lovely purple pachyderm.

            Afterwards, the verdict was split: one child wanted the merry-go-round, the other the roller coaster.  We compromised and Zachary went to pee while his brother squealed “PONY!” for the entire length of the carousel ride.  And, because lines were mysteriously short, even for off-season, Zach and I managed to slip onto the teacups before Ben and J caught up with us.

            I get uncomfortably dizzy even when I am not pregnant, so suffice it to say our teacup was one of the more gently spinning ones.  “From now on,” I declared upon our exit, “the teacups are a Daddy ride.”  I went to recover in line for a boat ride through miniature storybook land, a line that moved so quickly that J and the boys almost didn’t manage to get to the front to join me before I boarded.

            And then, Zach got his long-awaited roller coaster, if you can really call the little acorn ride in Mickey’s Toontown a roller coaster.  Benjamin and I, meanwhile, went out to stalk Minnie Mouse.  He had hugged her on the last visit and was completely smitten.  Sadly, all we managed was second-runner-up Mickey, but the toddler was pretty much cooked by this point.  It was time to take the train to Frontierland, sit in the air conditioning with baskets of chicken fingers (while Zachary gingerly lunched on apple slices), and listen to a fantastic banjo show in the Golden Horseshoe. 

            It had been a hell of a morning in Disneyland.  And, because we like to spoil ourselves our children, we stopped off for ice cream on Main Street.  By now, everyone’s goose was totally fried, and we decided to pick up the promised mouse ears on our way to the exit, giving the kids a chance to sleep it off in the car before a rousing game of “visit prospective houses” in the afternoon.

            And that’s how we ended up in a store, Zachary trying on ears while I chased his little brother.  Then, Benjamin stopped in his tracks.  There, in front of him, were rows and rows of stuffed animals.  Mickey Mouse stuffed animals, to be precise.  He grabbed one and clutched it.  “Mi-Mouse!” 

            I sighed.  We want less crap, not more.  We are trying to minimize our impact on the planet by buying only things we really will use, and the ears themselves were enough of a compromise for the day.  But, I also know when I am beaten.   “Go show it to Daddy,” I told him, and Benjamin ran off.  It was clear we would either be buying the animal or surgically removing it from his grasp.  And, because we did not want to deal with the tantrum were trying to be fair, I pulled a pink Mickey bracelet off the shelf for Zachary, whose entire face lit up when we handed it to him. 

            Now, appropriately product-laden, we headed across the street to the right place for ears, the Mad Hatter’s shop.  “Which color do you want?” I asked Zachary, using my ever-widening body to block the sparkly pink ears with a bow.  He scanned about, looking over the rainbow of ears, seeking the color we all knew he would choose.

            “Pink,” he declared, and I subtly guided him to the plain pink ears that were much less likely to occasion teasing among his peers.  While we have long grown used to his monochromania, we try to help him find the pinks that are less ostentatious.  He does not want girly things; he wants pink things.  He just cannot tell the difference, and we have tried to shield him from the stereotype that boys don’t wear pink.  We prefer he not even know that there are pig-heads out there who believe that only girls can like such lovely colors.  Frankly, however, it is hard to find a whole lot of manly pink shorts.  We guide the process so he can be handsome in pink.

            I asked the saleslady for help fitting the proper ears.  “He’d like these pink ones,” I said.

            “Boys can wear pink, you know,” he declared, and inside I suddenly felt like lettuce that has unexpectedly found itself left out in the hot sun.  He knew, then.  He knew the stereotype well enough to take a preemptive strike against it.  Had people said things to him?  At three-and-a-half, were they already trying to take away his joy and his favorite color?  And was he already having to defend his individuality?

            We bought the ears: pink for him and red for his brother (he looks beautiful in red), and made a serendipitous Minnie-sighting as we headed for the exit.  Two hugs and one picture later, we were finally out the gate, Benjamin in the stroller and Zachary perched on J’s shoulders, pink ears, pink shorts, and pink bracelet gleaming in the sun.

            And that’s when I heard it.  A girl behind me, older than my children but still young enough to sound like a child.  “Do you see that boy?  He’s a boy and he’s wearing pink.”

            I wanted to spin around, confront her parents for allowing her to sink into the mud of gender stereotypes, point out that my son loves trains and busses and building along with stickers and coloring and cranes and construction sites and flowers.  But that would be playing right into the bigotry that is so inherent in our society that a preschooler cannot dress how he chooses without feeling the need to defend himself.

            And so, without even turning around, I shot back, “Boys can like pink.”  At least he knows I am defending right alongside him.

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I promise tomorrow’s post is not about gender!  But it is an important one, so please do stop by.

Not into yoga?

Check out the other Hump Day Hmms on walking out of stride.

            “We’ll find out the sex on Tuesday,” I replied, as we stood around outside Buca de Beppo’s with a collection of J’s relatives.  It was a graduation, an event made all the sweeter because the graduate in question has a child of her own in college. 

            “Can you say ‘gender’ instead?  ‘We’ll find out the gender of the baby.’”  Jane is, after all, twelve, and made somewhat uncomfortable by the word “sex,” just as the turquoise David reproduction in the restaurant had made her squirm.

            “But we won’t find out the gender of the baby,” I told her.  “We’ll find out the sex.  Sex is biological, gender is socially constructed.  You cannot know the gender of a baby before it is even born.”

            As the child looked confused, her father half-joked, “Where did you learn that crap?” 

            “Actually, I have a Ph.D. in that crap,” I told him, smiling.

            To be totally honest, my degree is in literature, but you haven’t been able to get near an English department in the last 20 years without tripping over gender theory, queer theory, and a few other types of identity theory.  I believed much of what I believe before ever setting foot into the hallowed Greenlaw Hall in the fall of 1999, but my studies have given order to my beliefs and names to the abstract concepts I somehow felt were true.

            I do believe that there are differences between the sexes.  Our bodies are constructed differently, even down to the eyeballs.  Apparently, girls see more color and texture, while boys on the whole see more motion.  That, right there, sets us up for some divergence.  I do not claim the sexes are the same, and I honor those differences, understanding for example that puberty comes at different times and treats the two sexes very differently.

            Gender is the social construct we build up around sex.  So, while a need to pee in a different position is sex-based, clothing is man-made and therefore a gendered construct.  Toys, makeup, cars, earrings, trains, footballs, and tea sets are all man-made, constructed out of our imaginations.  And, along with the price tag, they seem to come stamped with a gender.  But, make no mistake, if we make the item, we make the gender association that comes with it.

            Judith Butler proves that gender is an imitation of an imitation of an imitation.  Most of the things we ascribe to sex differences are actually gender differences.  In other words, “girls are just like that” is usually correct because the girl is imitating another female who learned her gender in a similar kind of imitation.  Gender is nothing more than an echo in an empty room.

             That is not to say I do not myself follow gender norms.  Hey, I grew up in society, too, you know.  But, I do not feel comfortable forcing arbitrary gender stereotypes on children.  They will hear that echo soon enough. 

             Gender has its place and can make life interesting.  I get that.  What I don’t get is why we need such strict gender lines.  Why can’t we accept gender as fluid?  (“We” in this case refers to the straight community, because the gay community has been much better about allowing for a wide variety of gender expressions.) Why can’t a person identify as male, even macho, but still wear skirts because he finds them pretty?  Why can’t a person identify as female but be a football fan?  Why do these behaviors get marked as odd or deviant?

             We gender our children from the moment we know their sex, and some of that is unavoidable.  Language, as a social construct, has much more to do with gender than sex, so as soon as we refer to a fetus as “he” or “she,” we are gendering.  The names we choose gender, as well.  No one ever went to a Peter, Paul, and Mary concert and got confused about which one was Mary.  Names are the first rafter over which people build their identities, and the names we choose signal a lot about what we want for our children, including their gender identities.  If the sex is male, we choose a male name in hopes the child will also gender identify that way.

             But we do not have to build the child’s entire gender identity before it is even born.  We do not have to assume colors, clothes, toys, hobbies, and traits just because that’s the picture we have in our heads.

              So, yesterday, at the ultrasound, I learned many things.  I learned that this baby has all the right numbers of lobes and ventricles.  I learned that it plans on being as much of a pain in the ass as its brothers when it steadfastly refused to turn its head so the technician could check for cleft lip.  I learned that it is about as modest about its genitalia as are its brothers, because usually the technician cannot say for sure if it is a girl, but this time she was pretty damned sure. 

              What I did not learn was what the technician-in-training said, which is that I will be spending a lot of time shopping.  I have no idea if my daughter will like shopping.  If she takes after me, she’ll hate it.  If she takes after her father, there will be no getting her out of the mall.  I did not learn what she will want to play with; I did not learn how she will want to dress; I did not learn whether she will be prom queen or a quarterback; I did not learn who she will marry.  And I have no idea how she will feel about pina coladas and walks in the rain.

              I learned her sex.  Her gender will take a few more years to figure itself out.