Mar 26, 2007

Starsky and Hutch and Baby and Me

The chance to attend a mommy-baby movie at our local movie theater was on my short list of reasons to have another baby. Like under-the-belly maternity pants, Kate Spade-style diaper bags, or affordable Maclaren knockoffs, the brilliant idea to designate one movie matinee a week as a time when caregivers are welcome to bring young children to the theater hadn’t been conceived when my first two children were babies and that made me sad. So we made a new baby on a Thursday in May, I pushed her into the world on a Friday in January, and I took her to see Starsky and Hutch on a Wednesday in March.

I love going to movies. When I worked in retail a decade ago my days off were never in synch with the weekend days off my professional friends had. I began to go to movies by myself and developed a taste for it. I didnt need to worry about whether or not a pal was enjoying a movie I’d chosen, and I could bask in the joy long after the credits ran, without having to rush into detailed analysis.

I am notoriously easy to annoy in movie theaters. I am a glarer (don’t even think about unwrapping your jolly rancher). In fact, as recently as mid-pregnancy I demanded money back from a movie theater manager who allowed someone to bring a noisy three year old to a Friday night Grisham-style date movie; I’d arranged for someone to watch my three year old and I wasn’t interested in having to deal with the fidget-factor of someone else’s. Very few friends pass my rigid movie-theater code of silence--even my husband is on eggshells on the rare occasions we got together.

It is not surprising then that I was nervous about the kid-noise and mom-chatter that would, no doubt, be part of of a mommy-baby movie. But I figured Starsky and Hutch wasn’t going to be a hang-on-every-word kind of show, and I was eager to get out of the house so I grabbed the baby and a diaper and off we went.

I was so excited to be back in a theater I called my husband from the escalator. The smell of popcorn, the carpeted walls... I knew I was in the right place when I entered the lighter-than-usual theater.

There were fifty people in the room under the age of two. Most were attached to stylish moms and gorgeous couples. Expensive strollers filled the aisles, as well as the areas usually set aside for wheelchairs. People were murmuring to each other in typical pre-movie fashion. So far so good. Everyone seemed well-behaved.

I settled into a stadium seat behind a railing. Putting my feet up was going to provide necessary leverage for nursing and I didn’t want to get in trouble for putting my feet up on an upholstered movie seat (I wasn’t sure if they relaxed those rules in mommy-baby matinees and wasn’t willing to find out the hard way).

Several moms showed up in pairs. I noticed that they were able to hand off their babies to one another to make taking their coats off, locating important items in their diaper bags, and getting settled easy. I wondered if I would be willing to trade my love of going to movies alone for the convenience of a mom-friend’s extra pair of hands for my next matinee.

A father muttered to his baby in the row behind me. He was angry that the pre-movie filler included ads for soft drinks and candy, and was eager to share his anti-commercial views. Since he didn’t have any one’s ear but his baby’s he pulled the old parent trick of talking to his baby in a stage whisper. Surely “We didn’t come to the movie to SEE ADS, did we Ginger?” was meant for everyone around him, not the three month old strapped to his chest. I smiled at him over my shoulder so he would feel validated. I tend to go out of my way to encourage stay-at-home dads who show up at events that have the word ‘mommy’ in the title.

A trio of elderly women shuffled into the seats next to me. “It’s a kindergarten in here today,” one shouted to her friend. I wondered if they knew that this was a movie designated for mothers and infants or if they just thought that parents had suddenly become incredibly rude and presumptuous (more so than we actually are).

And then to spice things up two separate groups of mentally and physically disabled adults arrived. ‘It’s not fair!’ one woman shouted as her chaperone tried to steer her wheelchair into one of the few stroller-free zones left.

“It’s not fair!” she shouted at him even when he was on the other side of the theater trying to find available seats for some of his charges--all of whom were wearing down jackets and seemed to have lint in their hair.

“No Marie it is fair--it’s ok, they need the strollers for the babies...” he called patiently from several aisles away as he shepherded one of his grown-ups back in to a seat.

My heart went out to the chaperone who may or may not have had the heads-up that he had been about to bring twelve needy adults into an area teaming with toddlers and territorial moms (no winter coats were being picked up to make seats available for his crew). In an instant my own task proved enormously easy. While he was keeping track of wandering grown-ups in a large dark room, all I had to do was nuzzle my 6 week old baby, feed her, rock her, and enjoy the show.

The lights dimmed and a Barry Manilow song came on, signalling the start of Starsky and Hutch. No sound from the babies, no sound from the grown-ups, no sound from Marie-the-referee who was parked directly in front of my propped up feet.

And then “what time did you leave your house to get here?” old lady number one asked old lady number three, leaning across old lady number two in a voice that was definitely NOT an indoor voice.

“Oh I took the Path and then the blah blah blah blah” pattered on old lady number three.

“Awfully cold outside. I about froze getting here.” old lady number two shouted...

I was hoping Marie would let them know ‘it wasn’t fair’ that they were talking--no such luck. She was absorbed in the movie already.

I glanced desperately at the dad in the row behind me and at anyone else who might give me a knowing-enough look that would make it ok for me to shhh the trio of septugenarians who continued to chatter away. Everyone was focussed either on the screen or on locating some baby item.

At least, I thought, the movie volume is up pretty high. I was alone in that sentiment. A mom and a dad who didn’t belong to each other and who seemed to be mommy-baby-movie veterans approached an usher pointing to their children’s ears, and the sound was promptly adjusted down to their liking. Everything was falling apart.

The women continued to catch up with each other, now they were discussing weekend family get-togethers.

I was furious at them. They were, quite possibly, the only humans in the room who had any control over the amount of noise they could make in the next precious ninety minutes. But could I really complain? Hadn’t I just signed up for a noisy movie?

I considered moving, but since each mom-baby pair was taking up several seats, packing up and getting up and locating another area that could accomodate us and getting settled there would have been a several-minute ordeal. Plus I was pretty married to this railing my feet were up on.

An offer of popcorn from her chaperone prompted another ‘It’s not fair!’ from Marie. He crouched down to give her some anyway, and then rushed off to help another one of his charges.

I allowed myself to be driven mad for the first few minutes of the movie.

Thankfully, an unexpected shooting on screen got their attention and the three ladies stopped talking and settled into the movie. I prayed for more violence, not something I usually wish for when there are small children around, but it was a price I was willing to have them pay.

At one point Marie turned around and asked me what time it was. I was considering making something up, not knowing if it would be fair or not that I really didn’t know. One of the elderly noise-makers came to the rescue and told her the time.

Warm feelings towards this crazy community swelled up inside of me. Post-natal hormones or a sober realization that this is truly one of the greatest groups of people ever assembled in a movie theater in Brooklyn? Who cares. We were all on the same page now. Things were looking up.

The movie was a riot--and this movie-starved mom was grateful for every second of it. People were swift to calm fussy babies, several moms left the theater when necessary. Miraculously I was able to block out all noises from people under the age of seventy. My baby slept for most of it, and when she was awake she nursed quietly or gazed curiously at the flashes of lights and colors on the screen.

Next week I get to choose between Hidalgo with Viggo Mortenson or The Secret Window with Johnny Depp. Sandy Hunk or Scary Hunk? I’ve considered inviting several new moms that I know, but think I’ll just go it alone. What if one of them turns out to be a talker?

Mar 25, 2007

Death and Taxes

Trails of dirt and trampled bushes, broken lengths of wrought iron gate and bits of silver car grill, a chunk of bumper and loads of glass litter the sidewalk, just around the corner from our house. Crime-scene tape has been strung up (already) across the gap in the fence. The army green mailbox lies, dejected, on its side. One of its little legs is crumpled inward. It looks wounded and patient. Like a friendly droid, helpless to right itself again. My son would like that last image, since it’s from Star Wars.

Its 5:45 when I walk by this carnage. A half hour earlier I was at this very same spot with all the kids. Amos and Etta kept close to me as we crossed the street, as they always do. Out of habit really, not out of a sense of hyper-awareness that multi-ton missiles in the form of cars, vans, and trucks driven by God-knows-who’s-having-God-knows-what-kind-of-day strangers are zipping all around us.

They trailed their backpacks and winter coats behind them as we walked--absurd to think we’d sent them to school with coats this morning, since it ended up being a hot, sunny, playground day. The temperature was in the mid-sixties and we saw bare knees and toes that didn’t belong to us for the first time since September.

Joe was off at the accountant’s office (well, really the accountant’s mom’s house)--combing through the year’s finances, deductions, receipts, claims. A mundane but necessary thing to do; a chore that no one in his family (including his adoring wife) would think to thank him for. So preoccupied were we with the day to day minutae of getting up and out and then home again every day.

I had carried Piper across the street, part of the deal we’d negotiated a block and a half earlier when she decided to play the password game at the public playground’s main gate--and keep us trapped until we could figure out which random word, or cousin’s name she was thinking of. A plot that was neatly foiled by the timely arrival of a larger than life lady and her gargantuan brood that served to intimidate Piper since she barely came up to their knees--but which still managed to require a promise to be carried all the way home. And half way across the street she squirmed her intention to be put down, and half-slid down my leg to the ground--then wobbled to the curb on unsteady, adjusting-to-gravity-again legs.

There is always this moment when I’m crossing this street that I realize I should be being much more dilligent. Years ago when we were all in the playground there was the loudest sickest crashing sound and we all raced to the bars at the edge of the yard and saw that a car had misjudged the turn and was up on the sidewalk, banged up. A car one second, a smoking heap of vile twisted metal another. It was a terrifying reminder that the sidewalks aren’t as safe as we assume they are, but it also served to bolster my own sense that you’re either in the wrong place at the wrong time, or you aren’t, and there’s not much you can do about it.

My second job out of college was at an afterschool program on the Upper East Side. I fetched kids from a variety of schools and shepherded them across big avenues and side streets. The director of the program--a grouch named Buelah whose son was on Jeopardy’s Tournament of Champions which, I think, led her to believe that all of her paranoid crazy maternal instincts had been justified--had mapped out all of our routes, taking into consideration and completely avoiding spots where impatient but legally turning cars threatened law-abiding pedestrians. It seemed like overkill to me then, the way we had to wait for specific signals in certain directions and ignore otherwise legit walk signs. But of course I didn’t have my own kids then, so my own deep feelings of mortality and helplessness had not yet been plumbed.

The intersection around the corner from my house would have stumped Buelah. I imagine she’d have us overshoot this corner altogether, and loop down around the end of the block and come back on another street entirely--doubling the length of the walk. There’s no good way to do it, being that we have to cross two one-way streets--each one full of turning cars obeying their own green lights and conflicting with our own obedient paths.

So, operating on the its-out-of-my-hands theory we just cross the street. And on this particular afternoon I was struck with a very vivid thought. One of those twenty-minutes-of-plot-and-imagery- in-a-split-second kinds of thoughts. The thought was that my children and I would all be annihilated by a speeding, turning SUV. And that this would be horrible news for Joe, who was doing the taxes in another part of town. And people were sad and it was tragic, and a year from now, Joe would have to be doing the taxes again. And it would be so weird and awful for him. I wonder how his loss would show up on the form. Is there a box to check? But he would have to do it. Because life (his life) would go on.

So that’s the little story that crossed my mind as we crossed, safely, to the other side, and then we got home, and I forgot all about us dying and Joe doing the taxes next year after we’d died, because we’d already moved on to more pressing matters like muddy shoes and homework.

And we didn’t hear any loud noises, even though the intersection’s pretty close. But about ten minutes later a babysitter dropped by to tell me about the big car crash there on the corner. Something about a limousine up on the sidewalk and of course I don’t know if it’s the old-fashioned definition of limousine which is a long fancy car, or the Brooklyn definition of limousine which is any sedan with a T and an L on its plates. But I went to check it out.

As I stood there among the dirt and debris, I came face to face with several things.

1. a humbling version of ‘wow we were just here,’

2. a chilling version of ‘wow we were just here,’

3. an eerily ho-hum version of ‘wow we were just here,’ and

4. the sickening reminder of the little wandering thought I’d had about Joe having to do the taxes this time next year. And how we’d all be dead. And how he’d still have paperwork to do. And how he might not be able to claim us anymore.
And that that entire image had been in my head in such detail, as I’d ushered my kids across the street just minutes before some kind of limo lost control.

Mar 16, 2007

Fake, out!

Dear American Girl Place,

You promise that “lessons of love, friendship, courage, compassion, and tolerance are at the heart of every American Girl story." Please read on, to find out how right you are!

Thank you so much! I was really struggling out here in impoverished brownstone Brooklyn, trying to figure out how to explain to my six-year old daughter about the
importance of labels, and of the superiority of expensive things.

Etta had heard from pals at (public) school that American Girl Dolls were just fabulous, but when we looked at the website and saw the prices, we warned her that if she really really wanted one for Christmas, she wouldn’t be able to get too many fun doll accessories and other stuff. Plus, she has a 3 year old sister, and it would have been really hard to find a way to sit on top of Piper for the next three years to keep her from touching the impeccable and thoughtfully priced American Girl Doll.

Silly Etta, she chose to spend her own money (a mere $29.99!) a few weeks before Christmas last year, on an 18-inch doll at Target. The doll’s name is Gracie, and she came with a ballet outfit and several clever accessories.

You’d think the doll would be extra special for her because she earned every penny she paid for it, and you know what? You’d be right! It was special! She loved it. And she got another one for Christmas (named Robin) and her three year old sister got her very own Target doll too. Named Vicki, I think (but who can keep track of these random names, those dolls didn’t even come with books!). We weren’t so worried about the damage Piper would inflict on her cheap doll. We actually thought her doll was kind of cute (again, silly us!).

Poor thing, Etta thought she was lucky to have all of these great dolls--and she had loads of fun dressing them, carting them around, treating them like special little baby dolls. How on earth were we going to explain to her that her dolls weren’t REAL dolls and didn’t deserve her love and affection?

What were we going to do?!

American Girl Place to the rescue!

When her friend Julie invited her to go to the American Girl Place to have her doll’s hair styled, Etta was thrilled. “Come spend a day you’ll never forget!” the website promised. And boy did you deliver.

Frommers Guide to New York says “don’t forget to bring [your] favorite doll so it can get a makeover at the store’s own doll salon.” I know it’s craaaaazy that a Target fake (that cost only $29.99 of Etta’s real saved money!) would be her favorite doll but it was.

At least it used to be.

Back when she thought it was real.

She’ll never forget the feeling of waiting in line at the salon. The anticipation, the special feelings welling up in her body. She’d spent extra time in the morning dressing Gracie for the outing. Etta dressed extra-pretty too. Well, sort of thrift-store pretty. Hand-me-down pretty. Not expensive pretty. But she went off with her head held high. Feeling pretty and important and deserving. Courageous little girl.

When she got to the front of the line she was shown a menu of hairstyles to choose from for her doll. Her friend’s mom was surprised that the price had gone up from $10 a doll to $20, but Julie had earned this reward (and, as luck would have it, Etta really needed to learn a lesson), so it would be worth it.

“This isn’t a real doll!” the stylist exclaimed. (Thank your stylist!--we never would have had the heart to explain it that way!). And to prove that a fake doll isn’t worth the plastic she’s molded out of, she refused to do the doll’s hair.

I’m not sure exactly what’s in it for your company, because you still stood to make $20 off of my daughter for doing the fake doll’s hair. I have two thoughts on that. Either her $20 wasn’t worth the same as someone else’s $20 (in which case I’ve learned something new too!) OR it was worth the $20 to you to be able to be the one to break the news to, I mean, to *enlighten* my little girl. You do promise to teach little girls, don’t you?

And she cried and cried and cried, and your stylist held her ground. That was a good lesson for her too. That feelings don’t have a place in "the heart of Manhattan’s prestigious shopping neighborhood" (another quote from your website).

And did you realize how loyal to you all the other mommies in line were? You’d have been proud of them.

One chided Etta for not knowing she couldn’t bring a fake doll to the store. Tsk tsk. She’s in first grade now and can read by herself (taught herself, in fact). She probably should have done the research. There’s another great lesson for her. (Thanks mom in line!)

One mom muttered to another that Etta probably couldn't afford a real one. Great hunch! She's six!

One mom just smiled and said "Well, American Girl Dolls aren’t for everyone, you know.” A sentence cleverly crafted to make Etta feel like someone cared about her but also to be aware that she really didn’t belong there in your fancy store with the other, richer, better girls. How compassionate!

So, another little girl had a life-changing experience at The American Girl Place!

Hooray for you!

To think, she might have gotten through first grade with her self-confidence intact!

As a former personal shopper at FAO Schwarz (the big one on 5th Avenue!), I know that rules can always be bent, and on-the-spot judgement calls are allowed. In some places, they actually have a ‘customer is always right,’ mentality. Ridiculous!

You’re no fool, American Girl Place! You’re in this to educate little girls. And educate Etta you did. She knows she’s inferior now. Knows her dolls are worthless. Knows her feelings don’t matter. Knows that fake dolls (even fake dolls willing to shell out $20 for an up-do!) won’t be tolerated.

You say that at American Girl, a girl "chooses the friend that’s just right for her--with a story true to the character or one she creates all her own.” I can’t wait to see how Etta adjusts her own self-image to match what she’s learned about her worthless doll!

As promised, her experience at your store gave her "memories she’ll cherish forever." You cared enough to realize that there’s a limit to what I can teach her at home and you rushed in and offered up some good old-fashioned and completely unforgettable public humiliation!

Good job!

Forever grateful,
Etta’s mom.

Mar 10, 2007

Bloody Boring

“Parents are supposed to be interested in what their kids are interested in!” Amos declared in a fit of despair when I said I had no interest in dueling him with his Yu-Gi-Oh cards. For the ninth time that week.

Boy, did he know how to get to me.

All my life I’ve been worried about the emotional lives of children, animals, even objects (don’t even get me started on the uneaten banana being conveyed to its death on some heartless classmate’s messy cafeteria tray in college). Whether weeping for a banana that gave its life for nothing, or choosing to buy the ninety-five dollar Benetton sweater with the snag (because if I didn’t do it no one would, poor sweater), my life has been one long Charlie Brown Christmas special; I’m a walking the-girl-who-bought-Corduroy.

Given that history, it’s hard to imagine NOT making it a priority to nourish and stroke every budding interest and every tender thought my children have.

And so, with the possible exception of the Yu-Gi-Oh obsession (the mythology of which makes my eyes glaze over) I have doted on these children. I’ve saved every scribble (literally), answered (or googled the answer to) every question, nodded and purred along to every observation (only some of which deserved this level of awe), and I have felt incredibly dutiful and mostly satisfied.


“I find parenting to be bloody boring!” Eve announced at the dinner table at a moms’-night-out. I felt responsible for this particular mom, having been the one who brought her along to this larger group of friends--vital interesting women who, for the purposes of illustrating this particular moment, you should picture as a flock of pigeons.

Here’s the scene:

A pack of pigeons pecks away at a million specks of birdseed scattered on the ground beneath them. I’m one of the pigeons too, by the way. Pecking away, admiring everyone else’s pecking...and on occasion pointing out a particularly heartbreaking moment in pecking--oh wow that’s sad, peck peck peck--, or a refreshingly witty aspect of pecking--ha ha ha, peck peck peck. We are clever and we are pecking. Perfect puffy pigeons. Peck peck peck. Then the Eve pigeon swoops down, lands in the midst of them, and blurts out “this birdseed is bloody boring!’ Up pop the other pigeons’ heads. The pecking stops. Part of the pigeon that is me is finally free.

Bloody boring? I’d never considered that an option. Am I allowed to think that? I gasped at her honesty. And my life as a mom has never been the same.

“Mommy watch me I made up a magic trick!” My six-year-old takes a dollar out and folds it in half. “No wait! That’s not it! Keep watching.” She folds it a different way and puts it in her pocket, then realizes something. “No wait, that’s not it either.” She folds it again and tries the other pocket, then, “I have to start again, keep looking. Mommy!”

I look up from my magazine for the fourth time. I answer weerily “huh?’

“I’m starting it again. Keep watching.”

But now...there’s Eve in my brain tossing out a penalty flag. ”Bloody boring!”

This is bloody boring! I think, suddenly refreshed.

“Honey, why don’t you go practice the trick and let me know when it’s really really ready?”

It works. She disappears.

My eight-year-old comes over “Mommy what if the Clones were really Jedis?” he prompts, as if I’ve been paying attention to all of the different Star Wars species he’s been describing to me, in stages, over the previous three months.

I try to summon the correct knowing smile and wonder if I should ask him for a quick refresher course, but then-- “Bloody boring!" Eve shouts from the lifeguard chair at the edge of the kiddie pool that is often my mind.

I say “what do you think would happen?” and then allow a pleasant daydream to take over while he speaks. And since it’s officially boring, I don’t feel guilty at all.

(Peck, peck, peck)

Mar 9, 2007


‘Mommy, Anna says that girls can’t marry girls. But girls can marry girls. Right?’

My daughter asked this yesterday while I was negotiating a six-way intersection. I bought myself a few moments by responding with a ‘what, honey?’

‘In school, I said that a girl can marry a girl but Anna said a girl has to marry a boy.’

‘Umm.’ I said, more spacefiller. I was curious about what my neighbor’s kids in the row behind me were thinking. They’d stopped doing the ‘hunh!’ part of Kung Fu Fighting and were looking at me.

Six year old Sophie jumped in quickly ‘girls can’t marry girls, they have to marry boys.’

Her four year old brother added ‘yeah (giggle) girls have to marry boys.’

‘But Mommy, you said girls can marry girls so they can. Right?’ my daughter pleaded. Being right was a big deal to my four year old, ever since her six year old brother had begun to point out all the things she was wrong about, including the fact that she didn’t know what thirty-two plus thirty-two was.

I turned down the music (there were funky China me-en from funky China-town) and looked in the rearview mirror at four staggered sets of curious eyes. My children in the way back, Bess’s two in the middle row. I’ve had this conversation with my own children several times. But Sophie and Milo aren’t my children.

This carpool thing was tricky. Trickier than playdates where the kids are off out of earshot, or where there are so many toys and gadgets between them that subjects can be changed on a whim.

Back in the first week of school when we had just begun this arrangement, Sophie and Milo noticed that our minivan had a VCR in it. Jumping up and down as much as the nylon car seat straps would allow, they begged for a video. I fished for a video between the seats and found one shoved down in by the parking brake--a Veggietales video. We’d inherited it from a friend. I popped it in. Next thing I knew the whole car was filled with vegetables chattering golly-gee-like about the Bible and what God wants. My kids had seen this video before but have never watched it quietly enough to hear all of this dialogue. They usually only pay attention to the songs--which happen to be pretty catchy. But Bess's kids were glued to it--to every religious word. In my mind, I began to compose the email I’d be sending their mom once I got to work.

‘Dear Bess, I’m not sure what your feelings on the subject are but I think you should know that your kids had a Sunday School class in my car this morning.’

Bess’s laughing response soothed me. They had some Veggietales videos too.

So! Christian cucumbers, ok. Same-sex marriage? Who knows?.

Who knows what they’re being taught in their home? And who am I supposed to be right now? The friendly lefty mom who teaches other people’s kids about tolerance and opens their eyes to new and radical ideas? The play-it-safe diplomat here to reassure each kid that whatever they think is just fine? Or just a chauffeur without a glass partition.

My eyes met Sophie’s freckle-surrounded pair. Her eyebrows were raised like question marks and it was clear they were going to stay that way until I answered. It looked like she was getting ready to memorize my response, to add it in to her mental arsenal. To chisel it in somewhere.


I remember the first time I found myself prattling on to my son about marriage. It was at a time when he was being hotly pursued by ‘the kissing girls’ in his nursery class. An obnoxious girl named Zelda loved him, and got all the Graces to chase him at recess. He was a fast runner, and still now at six is eager to dismiss the whole ‘kissing girl’ episode.

The world was starting to come into focus for him in the way that happens when kids leave the bosom of the family and head out to compare notes with perfect strangers who are three. He heard from these girls about marriage, and that marriage meant that he might have to love a girl someday. This upset him (the kissing girls had not provided him with much faith in boy-girl unions) and he brought some questions to me.

During our otherwise old-style conversation (ours is, after all, a very traditional family--mom, dad, marriage certificate, house, mortgage, kids, minivan) I decided that this was a good opportunity to make sure I was raising a sensitive politically-correct kind of kid so I started to qualify my answers.

‘Who will I get married to?’ he asked.

‘Oh you’ll fall in love with some girl….or…um... some boy [did I just say that?] and then you can get married.’ I felt a sense of exhiliration--what progressive parenting this is! I am so cool. My kids are going to be so cool. He looked at me from under his blonde mop and considered this.

‘So I could marry Mandy, or Sari, or Lila, or….’

‘Or Hank…or Spencer…’ I added, encouragingly. Nodding like an idiot.

He looked at me a little bit weird. I wondered why I was pushing this. He was sort of happy for it to be a boy girl thing. I mean he wasn’t happy with it because he hated girls, but already at three he seemed to get the boy-girl pair bit.

It felt weird. Liberating (what great parenting!), but strange (should I call Hank’s mom and clue her in on this conversation?).

In his class there was a boy named Allan who used to arrive, strip out of his street clothes, and change into all the dress up stuff. Plastic heels, gauzy skirts, satin Disney princess-style bustiers, long dangly necklaces. As unthinkingly as Mister Rogers switching out of his windbreaker and into his yellow cardigan, that’s how matter-of-fact Allan was. He was one of the few kids whose drop-off was not accompanied by a parent eager to linger and make plans for coffee, or afternoon playground hook-ups. So none of us had any idea how his parents felt about his drag-queening around. We thought it was adorable. We were very politically correct. When my son was invited to Allan’s birthday party he knew just what Allan wanted.

‘Let’s get him some dresses,’ Amos announced. I balked.

What would his parents think? What if one of them would be ok with it but one of them wouldn’t be? What if a gift like that would really mess things up? My own democratic brother-in-law had NO sense of humor about his toddler son’s foray into make-up and heels. Even though I loved my son’s sensitivity to Allan’s tastes, I just didn’t feel comfortable getting dresses for a boy I didn’t know well, so I chickened out. I said something evasive like ‘well he gets to play with the ones at school, let’s get him something else.’ But Amos had already clued into what was going on because his second suggestion was this:

‘How ‘bout we get him a crown so he can be a king but if he wants he could be a queen, too?’

On some level Amos picked up a sensitivity to what was perceived as normal and what wasn’t when it came to gender. While the crown was a great idea, we couldn’t find one, so we ended up going slightly girlier than that. We got him a paper doll book with lots of stickers and dresses and fancy hats. Amos chose it for him over the rescue-worker books, and we figured that it would be a nice way for him to explore these ideas without rattling his possibly (but possibly not) stuffy parents. And I got to continue to feel politically correct and modern.

So I planted all of these seeds in Amos when he was three--when he was like our own little science experiment. And then when my daughter asked about marriage I remembered to give her the same ‘boy or girl’ version. And at another point in the past three years I’ve been called upon to tackle the subject of why James and Erin have a mom but no dad. In the same tradition of answering their questions as honestly as possible using age-appropriate language all the while feeling giddy by how matter-of-factly they were absorbing everything, my children now know that there are places called sperm banks where women who want to be mommies can go to get the ingredient for their babies that can only come from daddies.

My husband and I are proud of the messages we’ve given to our kids, and of how we’ve propped their minds open. But here, now, in this carpool I’m being put to the test. Someone else’s kids are curious to see whether or not my rules match the ones they’re being taught at home. I know Bess from lots of energetic playground encounters, but haven’t traipsed into politics or religion with her. Back when we all lived through the presidential election, I sensed that it wouldn’t be fun to compare ideologies with her. And I’m not sure who to be right now with her kids.

So I took the easy way out.

‘Well in some places it’s true that girls can marry girls,’ I said, smiling at my kids. ‘But in other places people don’t think it’s ok.’ My eyes met Sophie’s eyes. Her eyebrows relaxed. All was back to normal in her world. and my daughter could still feel backed up by facts. Thank you red states.

I didn’t lie. But I didn’t say what I would like to have said. I didn’t make the impassioned plea about all kinds of people loving all kinds of people and why it should be ok and whose business is it anyway.

This morning Bess’s kids climbed into the car and told my kids that they pulled the tails off of geckos in Florida over the weekend. Just as I saw my kids start to process this alarming case of animal abuse (yes I know the tails grow back but still...) I took another easy way out. I popped a Disney video into the VCR and listened gratefully as the minivan swelled with the sounds of animated animals preaching to each other about love and responsibility.

But I imagine there’ll be some explaining to do at dinner tonight.

Mar 8, 2007

Memorizing Helen

Helen Mirren is my best friend. She doesn’t know me, of course. But I know her well. I can picture her home. Lush greenery, stone walls, gorgeous English gardens, all well-hidden in the hills of California, somewhere off of a non-descript commercial stretch (seriously, you’d hardly believe you were heading to her home if you saw the left turn). I remember her shock and dismay, how she burst into tears, when, upon accepting the part of the Queen of England, she was introduced to the dowdy wardrobe she’d be wearing--rows and rows of practical shoes. I know about her strict father, disapproving of her dramatic pursuits. I’m familiar with her husband’s dry sense of humor. Hilarious guy. I know all of these things about her because she kept me sane one morning, last September, on the subway.

I had a New Yorker in one hand (pre-folded for easy reading), the train was packed, and I was thrilled. Thrilled to be stepping out of my mother-of-three life for just a few hours, to go somewhere--to a high floor of a glossy skyscraper in midtown to be taken seriously by a group of grown-ups, strangers from some sort of communications empire, who would be dazzled by my thoughts and ideas--original views and expressiveness that would no doubt make me stand out as truly special and valuable and worth every penny of the hundred bucks they’d be paying me. I was on my way to a focus group.

“I love you so much baby I want to release all over you but I can’t baby--you know why I can’t,” a man muttered in a gravelly voice to the woman he was pressing up against (the woman who was pressing up against me). She purred something in response and pushed her knee up between his legs. If I look anywhere but at my magazine the bottled-up man might (rightfully) accuse me of eavesdropping. He’d already called out several people on the train for looking at him. But is it really eavesdropping when my open ear is inches from his open mouth? My crime, if accused, would be paying attention to the words he was knowingly floating next to me. My only hope was to fill my head with Helen.

Helen gazed regally out of her black and white photo. I read and re-read the opening sentences of her life story, trying to get them to stick in my brain. My ears were hot with the uncomfortableness and proximity of the dangerously dirty couple and their dangerously dirty conversation. My brain chugged along offering up reasons for the guys impotence--erectile disfunction? Impending boxing match? We were all too close together.

And then the train lurched to a stop. One of those angled-pitched stops you get mid-turn in a dark tunnel. The lights flickered and then the thrumming sound of some secondary kind of engine followed. My blood pressure began to rise. I wasn’t even supposed to be on this train.

I had left early enough to ensure a slow and steady ride on the underappreciated but generally plodding C train. But then I panicked on the platform when no Cs came, the waiting crowd started to get denser, and a garbled announcement happened--one that no one understood but one that *might* have been warning us of problems on the route. If I’d known I was going to be coming in on the F train, I’d have gotten on it in a different way--the light-hearted coming-in-from Queens way, not the heavy-duty heavily-packed downtown-Brooklyn way. Every decision I’d made along the way had been the wrong one, I was hopelessly helplessly late.

My only memory of the show Emergency! from when I was younger was when the heroes were sent to help a woman who’d eaten bread dough and it had risen inside her, causing her belly (and more, from the looks of it) to expand grotesquely. Her entire body was barrel shaped and she had a hard time breathing. I thought of that lady when I was on the F train. A hard fist of frustration was balling up in me and was threatening my breathing as well. The difference between me and the Emergency! victim was that she got to lie down and be helped by handsome Randy Mantooth and I had to deal with my pain, sitting up, wedged in between gross, threatening strangers.

I dove further into my article. If my eyes had been lasers I’d have burned holes through the magazine--so intent was I on connecting to the words on the page. So strong the energy in my gaze, so determined was I to etch those words into my mind--Anything! to escape the lewd couple and the simultaneously full and hollowed-out-empty feeling of being so late and so helpless to improve my circumstances.

And etch themselves they did! Like a reverse lobotomy. A slice of information force-added rather than force-removed. Or rather like an elegant old scrollwork engraving on a tarnished silver pot. Here is my brain. Here’s my brain with Helen Mirren. Here’s her disapproving father (he couldn’t stand royalty!). Here’s the nondescript commercial stretch in southern California, the inocuous left-turn, the drive into the hills, the lushness of her life there. Helen Mirren and I are very close. When I’m late I remember taking refuge in her and when I see her I remember the awful sensation of being so late.

I was underground for over an hour. I surfaced into the hot sun and vanished into a cool lobby. I panted in the mirrored elevator, apologized in the plush waiting room, and was dismissed several minutes later. They’d begun without me. They gave me the hundred dollars anyway. And I felt bad about that. But I accepted it anyway.

Mar 5, 2007

In Chinatown

I almost killed a man in Chinatown.

It was a shiny black night and red lights glowed wet and bright and I was race-walking along Canal to get to the store that sells the Naruto headbands before it closed because Amos had promised Ziggy that that’s what he was giving him for his birthday.

As I approached a somewhat empty intersection I glanced down the oncoming street and, without breaking my stride, calculated that I could make it to the other side before the fast car half way down the block would reach me.

Without hesitating, I stepped into the street and began to glide across.

Several steps in, I made eye contact with an approaching man who was about to step into the street I was about to vacate. It was clear he was making his own crosswalk calculations based on my uninterrupted gait and I noticed that he wasn’t even looking for traffic because he must have read my face and my pace as being nonchalant without realizing how close I was cutting it--my being in such a hurry to get that headband and all.

I had a flash of wondering if I should warn him that a car was bearing down on us--but a disconnected flash, at best. Almost like I was reading about him in a magazine or seeing him in a commercial on tv. I was mildly curious at how much trust he was putting in me--a perfect stranger not even in the same MTV demographic--and at the same time I felt no responsibility towards him.

As I stepped up on the curb and out of harm’s way, a buddy of his I hadn’t noticed before reached for his arm and screeched him to a halt. From the sound of alarm in the friend’s voice it was a close call.

I kept up my pace to the store that carries the Naruto headband and made it just in time--the lady was in the way back and had clearly given up on having any more customers. I had a warm, if not fluent, convesation with her about the differences in sizes and prices, and chose the one that cost eight dollars.

I keep thinking about the man though. If we were in a movie the icy glance of disconnection on my face as I moved past him would be an obvious window into my level of evilness.

But I don’t think I’m that bad.

It’s almost like he almost fell victim to my tendency, as I get older, to believe I know how things will turn out. It’s like I’m surrounded by multiple choice questions and “c) the stranger is mashed flast by the speeding car” wasn’t one of the possible answers.

Instead of being humbled by all the times I couldn’t have predicted certain outcomes--like the time the garbage truck smashed into my car even though I’d slammed on the brakes with what should have been suffficient timing based on all the other times stopping on a dime had prevented an accident, I seem to walk around the planet with an ever-boldening sense that I know that things will end up ok.

So this stranger ended up ok. He probably learned that he should look down the streets himself, and not rely on the faces and paces of strangers. And I’m either slightly chilled by the memory of what might have happened, or standing firm in my belief that I had no responsibility in the matter. I’m not sure yet.