Monthly Archives: July 2008

Numbers

            I had not seen a person with numbers for years.  I had almost forgotten they existed.

            Even though our new Los Angeles neighborhood is residential, it is bordered by commercial streets.  For reasons unclear to J and me, we seem to have five fabric stores within a two-block radius, and there are three nail salons visible from the corner at the end of our street.  Nonetheless, many of the businesses are incredibly useful, and we can walk to the pharmacy, the bank, a Coldstone Creamery, a burger joint that has been around so long it is a Los Angeles fixture, and a fantastic children’s bookstore.  We can also walk to the mall in under two minutes.

            This is one of those mid-level malls that has a Gymboree play center, a Motherhood Maternity, and a Payless.  No fancy men’s clothing stores, but a Macy’s on one end and a Nordstrom on the other, so I guess we could get fancy things if we knew what to do with them.  There is a soft-play area in the food court, so on a hot day kids can let off some steam before purchasing a hot dog on a stick.

            I was there with only Zachary (almost four) one afternoon, a rare luxury because J had the day off and he was watching Trouble (2).  We were checking out a new store where children (and I suppose adults) can make their own books and then have them turned into hard-covers or board books.  Since Zach spends the better part of every afternoon in his room making books, I thought this would be a lovely place for us to spend some time alone together.

            It turned out to be more lovely time than I had bargained for.  No one can rush my son when he has a job to do, and the task at hand apparently required a good deal of attention to detail.  I was concerned we would be there around the time they started polishing the floors at the end of the night.

            But, Zach finally finished, and we left the store in a very good mood.  He has been almost impossible with me lately, perhaps due to the complete lack of control he feels.  I am guessing that feeling comes from either the transatlantic move, the second move to a new house, the entirely new school and then the new class within that school a few months later, his father working absurd hours, his mother pregnant, or the guys endlessly finishing the work on our back garage.  Since Mommy is the Complaints Department, he is perfect in school and then maniacal when he gets home.  Hence, the afternoon of special time.

            We had a stroller with us, so we headed for the elevators, first having to go up and then down to get a spot inside.  Up on the top floor, by the food court and the soft play area, an elderly woman stepped partway in.  She held the doors open and called for someone to come.  We waited.  And waited.  And I started to get annoyed because she was holding us up for someone who was taking his sweet time.

            It turned out to be her husband, a man in his eighties or early nineties, who clearly had needed to sit on a bench until the elevator came.  He slowly made his way over with a cane and finally we were on our way down.

            He smiled at Zachary, who smiled back.  Noting our double stroller, he asked, “Do you have a brother?”

            “Yes,” Zach replied.

            “Where is he?”

            “He’s at home with my Daddy.”

            “And show him where your sister is,” I told Zach, who obligingly pointed to my belly. 

            And, just as the man said something else to my almost-four-year-old about the wealth of siblings he seems to have, I noticed it.  His arm.  Six numbers, starting with 111.  I froze momentarily, catching my breath.  It was a little like when I see celebrities and start talking to them before I realize who they are.  Somehow, I felt like I should have known, like I was wrong to be talking to him without acknowledging who he was.

            There are fewer and fewer survivors.  They are getting older and dying.  This man would have been in his mid-twenties when the last of the camps were liberated, younger than I am now.  He had lived an entire lifetime since then, with a wife and probably children and perhaps great-grandchildren.  He had worked in jobs and read newspapers and bought socks and retired and learned a new language.  Those numbers on his arm, they are just one part of his history, despite all they represent.

            He walks around with those numbers on his arm, but he is not defined by them.  He has conversations with small children in elevators. 

            I walked out and wanted to sob, partly because I was struck by how lucky we are, no matter how stressed I am, and partly because I have rivers of hormones racing through my veins.  But also, partly, because I could not speak to him about it, could not bring myself to define him by the same number they had once used to define him.  I wanted to show him I knew, but that was not my place.

            I stepped out into the sunlight and called J to let him know we were on our way.

            “Did you make it to the grocery store?” I asked.

            “Yep.  And we saw Tori Spelling in the bread aisle,” he replied.  

—————-

Edited to add: You might want to read this post that joins in this conversation.

Happy birthday, trouble

            But, Emily, why don’t you write about Benjamin? 

            I do, of course.  But not as much as I write about Zachary.  And it’s not just because Zach is older.  Zach is so much like me he makes my identity ache.  Sometimes, only writing allows me to process the feelings.

            Benjamin, however, certainly came fully equipped with a personality.  And, as he inches up on two years old, he is asserting it.

            Unlike his older brother, he seems to have little interest in pleasing adults.  He far prefers to disobey.  He runs away.  If I take him by the hand, he goes limp.  He stands on tables and jumps from ledges and laughs the whole time.

            “We need to find an effective punishment,” J says.  Thank you, oh wise husband.  But, what, exactly would that be?  In my current very pregnant state, it is hard to lift his giant body for very long, so I can’t just pick him up and make him go.  And, if I do, he thinks it is hysterical.  He also finds yelling, sternness, and the word “no” to be very, very funny.  We set up a pack ‘n’ play as a time-out space, which at least contains him during moments of destruction, but you know damned well he thinks it is just amusing as hell to be put in there.

            “Unless we start hitting him, I am not sure what we could do to convince him,” I respond.  “The only things that upset him are when his brother hurts him or we take away his giraffe.  Neither of those seems like a particularly good deterrent.” 

            It doesn’t help that he is a fantastic eater, which means he just keeps getting bigger.  He has the body of a three-year-old.  And the verbal ability of a three-year-old.  What he doesn’t have is the cognitive or emotional ability of a child a year older.  The nice thing about this is that when he does what kids his age do – pushing, rough play – he actually hurts the other kids.  And the mothers look at me, wondering why in the world my three-year-old is acting like a two-year-old.  Um, because he is two…

            He starts preschool in the fall, and we have been going through a “separation program.”  At school, he behaves just fine, as does his brother.  While the elder child needs the structure of a school day to feel in control, the younger one needs that structure to be controlled. 

            And when he has spent all morning in school, he’s too damned tired to run away from me.

            He runs me in circles; he gets out of bed at night to unplug all the electronics in his room, as well as to disassemble the night light; he climbs to the top bunk and somehow removes the guard rail before he realizes he does not know how to come down; he pushes and climbs on other children.  He is also gentle with babies and animals.  He is in love with a friend’s baby sister, standing by her side when she is in the stroller, amusing her in the bouncy chair, and trying to put her little sock on when it comes off.  No, kiddo, you don’t have that level of fine-motor skills just yet.  He pets every animal we see.  He runs up to children at the playground and hugs them, and if they are strong enough, they don’t even fall down with the force of his affection.  He sits in the back seat of the car, greeting all those we pass: “Hi, big truck…  Hello, man…  Hi, fire engine.”

            He is a tornado, but he is a tornado filled with nothing but love.  And a little bit of mischief.  

——————

On another note, can anyone recommend a brand of soft baby doll that has realistic, long hair?  My friend’s son has become obsessed with her hair, and she’d like to substitute a doll before she goes bald.

William Faulkner and I have the same birthday

            My books are arranged by subject matter.  There is a section for Literary Theory, which flows nicely into Feminism, which then abuts American Studies.  All three topics overlap, and I can sandwich in the middle the books that fall into both categories.  Since I have a lot of plays about the Holocaust, I always position Holocaust Literature next to Dramatic Literature, although where to put American Theater History and Performance Theory is a bit of a muddle.  Does it go next to Dramatic Literature, or is it more a part of American Studies and Literary Theory?  And the book titled Holocaust Poetry causes me no end of angst.  Poetry or Holocaust Literature?  Each time I unpack my books that one throws me for a loop.

            The rest of the fiction is easier.  I divide it by nationality.  There is a respectable Brit Lit section, an embarrassing World Lit section, and a rather impressive American Lit section.  I do, after all, have a Ph.D. in American literature.  Within those departments, I organize chronologically.  The problem, of course, is what to do with the likes of Toni Morrison or Tom Robbins.  I need to keep all their books together (what asshole breaks up a family?), but Morrison and Robbins span decades.  Usually, I pick whatever strikes me as the writer’s best-known or most important work, put that in the right place chronologically, and stick the rest of his or her work in beside it.

            I am ashamed to say I do not organize within the author sections by date.  I used to, really I did, but who has the time to check the publication date of every single Edith Wharton?  And do you know how much Henry James I own?  It could take months to finish unpacking (it may anyhow).

            Most of these books were in storage while we lived in London, and as I unpack there is a feeling of returning the world to its rightful axis.  I own what must be well over 1,000 books – and those are just the adult books.  We’re not talking about the kids’.  Bringing them out of boxes, where Harriet Jacobs was absurdly stacked against Geoffrey Chaucer, and putting them next to their contemporaries restores order to an unruly world.

            Some are authors I have loved for as long as I can remember – F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, Octavia Butler.  Others are authors I have researched and written about, and so I know their work and their lives down to the skeleton – Henry James, Theodore Dreiser, Gertrude Stein.  But others are writers I did not like at first, like the man at a cocktail party who blows his nose on the napkins and tells you about his new Beemer.  Getting to know them has been a courtship, and only through continued time together have I learned to love who they are underneath.

            And that is how I came to my relationship with William Faulkner, a writer whose work at first struck me as unnecessarily difficult and pretentious beyond its merits.  I have spent time with him, unpacked his words – reluctantly at first, for a class assignment or because I had to teach him.  But, eventually, I began to relax into his rhythms and submit to his poetry.  He is, after all, a genius.  As I unpack his books, I find they take up a whole shelf on their own.

            As I put Faulkner next to Faulkner – As I Lay Dying, A Light in August – and put Hemingway uncomfortably close, I wonder.  Did he know?  Did he know each day about his gift?  Did he sit down to write secure that he was creating something right? 

            And what about the others?  I know that Gertrude Stein never wrote about her doubts, but did she have them?  Does Edward Albee just assume his absurdity will strike the right balance with reality?  They might struggle with words, but do they struggle with writing itself?  Does the concept of being a writer feel uncomfortable, even to the geniuses?  Do they wonder each day whether what they are pulling together is any good or just more crap to fill the library shelves?

            Because for me, writing is a constant juggling of unreasonable confidence with continual self-doubt.  And, even though I know I am no William Faulkner, I’d love to know that every now and then he wondered who the hell he was to call himself a writer.

The gift that keeps on giving

            I tell the child not to eat his boogers.  And, frankly, it mystifies me why a person who refuses to eat watermelon, pizza, or blueberries finds his own snot so appetizing.  I enlist the help of doctors, relatives, and grocery check-out clerks.  “See, he doesn’t eat his boogers…”

            So, maybe I should be grateful for the other day, when he picked his nose and then, outstretched hand, offered it to me.  “Here, Mommy, I’m not eating my booger.”

            I guess you could call this progress…

———————–

I plan on purging my archives in the next week or two.  This is all part of my plan to keep from embarrassing my children when they are pre-teens.  OK, I know my mere presence will be an embarrassment then, but at least I can make sure they aren’t taunted in the hallways because of something they did when they were three…

Mean girls?

            “Mommy,” Zachary says, “that girl is mean.  She teased me about my pants.”  His pants, a light linen, are red and white striped, cute and bold, but definitely not effeminate.   He points to a little girl who is among the several children from school we have run into at a local playground.  They have all been playing together, along with the friend he had come here to meet. 

            “Well, then, honey, let’s go talk to her.”  I take him by the hand, walking over to the offending four-year-old.  “Hi.  Zach here has something he wants to say.  What’s your name, sweetie?”

            “Elaine,” she tells me.

            “Hi, Elaine.  Zach, can you please tell Elaine how you feel when she teases you about your pants?”

            He leans back into me, shy about this confrontation.  But he looks straight at her.  “Sad,” he responds.  It is only one word, but it is the first time he has ever directly addressed someone about teasing.  Usually, he waits hours, sometimes days, until he mentions to me that someone was unkind.  Today, he has come to me, told me immediately, and he has told her how he is feeling.

            “So, Elaine, could you please not tease Zach about his pants?”  I smile, knowing that she has done nothing worse or better than any child her age, including my own.  She seems a little surprised by this conversation, but she agrees before they all run off to play again. 

            Later, he tells me exactly what she had said.  She had said they look like ballet pants, which is strange, as they are loose and flowing.  “Maybe she was trying to say something nice,” I offer.

            “No, she wasn’t.”  He is sure, and I believe him.  A kid knows when he has been teased.

            Oh, child, I fear this is just the start.  You are an individual.  You are a boy who likes bright colors, a child who builds things, a thinker.  I love those things about you.  You also have a very big mouth.  And, my love, when you are a little bit off the beaten path, nothing makes you more of a target than calling attention to yourself.

            Trust me, I don’t know much, but I know of this.  I know how being gregarious and different can draw people.  I know that people are like moths and they are pulled into the bright flame.  I also know that it will make your differences all that much easier to spot.  Baby, if there is one road I have traveled, that is the one.

            It doesn’t help that you are very sensitive to the opinions of others.  Nothing pleases a teaser more than hitting her mark.  It is positive reinforcement of the highest order.

            J and I have two roads we could go.  We could teach you to assimilate, encourage you to channel those interests into things we think will be acceptable to your peers.  We could encourage you to occasionally stop talking, which would, as an added bonus, make things quieter around the house.  This is the route my aunt chose with me as a teenager, and it made me feel like doing things my way was wrong.  It made me feel like she did not like who I was, which, come to think of it, was probably true.

            Or, we could teach you how to face the teasing.  Right now, standing up for yourself means telling someone.  Hopefully, one day it will mean you whip off a snappy comeback before marching off with your friends.

            What I know, as clearly as I know my own past and my own childhood, is that it will never mean it does not hurt.  I can tell you to ignore it, that it is their own stupidity.  But I can never, ever make you not care.

            And so, the next morning, as you pull on pink shorts, we talk.  “What do some people think about pink, Zach?  Do they think it is for girls or for boys?”

            “They think it’s for girls,” he tells me.

            “Are they right?” I ask.

            “No,” as he picks out orange socks.

            “That’s right, because you wear pink.  But, sometimes someone might tease you about wearing pink.  If that happens, what could you do?”

            It does not occur to him to suggest he not wear the color, and far be it from me to put such an idea into his head.  “Stand up,” he says, repeating what I have told him.

            “And how do you do that?”

            “Tell you.”  I remind him that he could also tell a teacher, and he nods.  Nonetheless, I pick a t-shirt for him.  This outfit definitely calls for navy blue.

The gods must be crazy — or they have it in for me

            Shel Silverstein wrote a poem called “Sick.”  In it, a little girl invents a series of ailments that will prevent her from attending school, only to be miraculously healed when she realizes it is Saturday.

            We have sort of the opposite situation around here.  Zachary has never missed a day of school in a year and a half.  No, he is not the healthiest preschooler on the planet.  No, I don’t send him when he is sick.  He is just apparently committed to getting sick only on weekends and school holidays. There was the stomach bug over winter vacation.  There was the time he and his brother got conjunctivitis on the very first day of spring break and finished their course of treatment the day before school started back up.  And of course the countless fevers that start on Friday and end sometime in the night on Saturday, so that the requisite 24 hours has elapsed between the end of the fever and his return to school Monday morning.

            So, I shouldn’t have been surprised that he was perfectly healthy at noon on Friday when I picked him up from school but by 1:30 was clearly too sick to continue his playdate.  By 3:00, his fever was over 102°.

            Now, those of you who are either under-occupied in your own lives or who are stalking me will have noted that this was the weekend my husband was taking out of town with friends, in exchange for my getaway next weekend.  While I have lined up some help for him next weekend, no one was around to assist me this weekend.

            So, as I looked at the almost-four-year-old who was too sick to do anything but sit and be read to and the almost-two-year-old who was too healthy to do anything but run around outside and my own six-months-pregnant self, I had to stop and wonder.  Maybe there really is a God.  And that deity has decided that the transcontinental move and the new house and the book and the husband working insane hours and the pregnancy and the potty training and the forty-nine other things I have going on are just not enough and that what I really needed this weekend was one child with cabin fever and another with a real fever.

            I looked imploringly at the heavens and thought that perhaps this was how Job felt.

            But there was the mother of three whose sons go to school with my boys who offered to take Benjamin Saturday morning.  Firmly of the opinion that she has enough going on, I reluctantly declined and took them to a playground for awhile, where Zach sat on my lap while Benjamin scaled the equipment.

            There was the call when we returned from the neighbor with whom I had cancelled a playdate for that morning.  Her husband had taken their elder child out of town for the weekend, and she offered to take Benjamin for an hour to play with her son.

            There were the two friends from college who – after returning from a week out of town – took Benjamin to a playground all Saturday afternoon.  Zach and I spent the hours on the couch, reading all of the Frog and Toad books.

            And, of course, by Sunday morning, Zachary’s fever was gone, just in time to leave him clear for a return to school today.

Sitting pretty

            “Just wait till they’re ready to potty train,” people say.  Well, I call bullshit.  If you sit around waiting for your kids to be ready to do things, you’ll never get anything done.  Just try waiting till your kid is ready to leave the house some day.  She never will be.

            I know people who have waited for all the “readiness” signs, not starting to introduce the potty till the kid is three.  Dude.  Those kids are FREAKED OUT by the thought of pooping on the potty.  Or, peeing there becomes a control issue.  Those are people in for some serious misery.

            So, we introduce the potty early, fully aware that the kids may take awhile to be fully trained.  At least they are used to using the thing.

            Unfortunately, we found that, after a few poops on the potty, Benjamin stopped moving his bowels there.  He would tell us immediate after the event, but never before.  Given how much he eats, he has like four opportunities a day to actually make it to the potty, but he never did.

            We sit with him for ten, fifteen minutes at the time we know he needs to go, but no dice.  And when I say “we,” I mostly mean me and his almost-four-year-old brother.  Their father works a lot, but sometimes I can get Zach to keep his little brother company so I can finish the dishes.  You know things are wrong when you are asking your preschooler to help potty train the toddler.

            I had heard about people putting the poop into the potty to show them where it goes, but that just seemed like an extra step before flushing it.  Nonetheless, I was desperate.  I dumped the poop right in, then placed him on the seat.

            Wow.  Was he ever bothered.  Somehow, walking around wearing the poop is OK, but sitting on the seat over it?  That is just gross.

            The next time, he sat a little easier.  And the time after that?  We made it to the potty in time for him to do his business right where it belonged. 

            Naturally, the occasion called for a dinosaur sticker.