Jun 27, 2007

What's Important Changes

On the first day of camp last week I slapped Amos’s camouflage baseball hat on his head as he walked out the door. He’s not that much of a hat kid but we didn’t know the system yet---weren’t sure how much outside time/sun time they’d be having, so I tossed the hat on him just in case he’d be needing a bit of shade for the day. When I picked him up I was surprised to find him frolicking in the enormous bouncey-ball pond with the other kids, with his hat still on. All the kids' shoes and various accessories were in a pile outside of the pit, and the kids were tumbling and rolling around like puppies, leaping off of things, laughing. And Amos was in the midst of it all, fussing to make sure the hat was still on his head.

It was clear to me in that moment that the hat had become an important part of his identity. He was the kid from Brooklyn with the hat in this Soho mishmash of kids. The giggly little Asian kid, the buttoned-up geeky kid, the 8 year old with the mohawk and the rock ‘n roll shirts, the scraggly Belushi-like kid, the freckled tomboy girl...

Every morning we’d find the hat on his way out the door to camp. Sometimes we’d forget (him not being a hat kid, after all) and seconds after he and Joe said their goodbyes and left we’d hear the metal gate slam and a jangle/fumble at the door --he’d point out that he needed his hat, and we’d always manage to find it.

It reminded us of the lego table. When he was three and went to preschool, he spent the first few minutes on the very first day of school sitting at the green lego table silently stacking plastic pieces. And we all just assumed it was his favorite thing. Boy, he sure loves legos! Midway through the year when he’d gained lots of confidence and loads of friends we arrived to drop him off and he stood frozen in the doorway. The lego table wasn’t there.

‘Oh we thought the kids might want a little water play this morning’ his teacher said, gesturing at the water table that stood in the center of the room.

Amos glared at her, and at the spot where the lego table used to be.

We all made chipper noises about how cool the water table was and, as if to illustrate this, several kids ran into the room past Amos and splashed gleefully. Until that moment we didn’t realize that the lego table was really his only way to enter the classroom. We didn’t know he couldn’t walk into the room if he wasn’t walking towards the green lego table.

Of course he was at a very sweet school with lovely teachers, and while I was prepared for this to be a major big new experience for him--one for the record books--one of the teaching assistants knelt down in front of him and invited him to come help her drag the hunk of plastic out of the store-room. He went with her, hand-in-hand to retrieve it. Needless to say, it remained in the room for the rest of the year.

So now here we were five years later with a new security blanket in the form of a camouflage hat from a restaurant we’d visited in Austin Texas a month earlier. It got him through the week and then was forgotten again over the weekend (did I mention he’s not really a hat-wearer?), and no one was paying much attention to the camp departure yesterday morning--Monday. He and my husband scooted off; a seemingly uneventful return to the routine.

Today, Tuesday, I was responsible for camp drop-off. As we neared the industrial block where his camp was located, I looked in the rearview mirror at his blond moppish head and asked if he had his hat.

‘No,’ he shrugged light-heartedly. ‘I forgot it.’

‘Is that ok? ‘ I asked, bracing myself for a cloud of worry to pass over his bright eyes (and foreseeing the same horrified doorway-stall I so vividly remembered from five years earlier).

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I forgot it yesterday, too.’ Then he added. ‘Since I already made it through a day without it, it doesn’t seem so important anymore.’

‘Funny how that happens,’ I mused, realizing that this moment--alone in the car with my kid--could be the kind of teachable moment the anti-drug commercials tell us about. I should comment on it in a way that might help this moment become mom-wisdom that he’ll always remember. I could remind him about the lego table. I should sound cheerful and matter-of-fact. If I sound too preachy he'll catch on...

But before I could scrape something together he continued...’it’s like when we’re playing Rummy and I’m collecting Aces and Aces are like the most important thing to me and then you put down, like, Ace two three four and then someone else puts down, like Queen, King, Ace..and all of a sudden the two Aces in my hand aren’t as important to me anymore. Sometimes things that are important just aren’t that important anymore. That’s how it is with my hat,’ he said.

He had beaten me to the greater wisdom of the situation, and he explained it better than I ever could have.

Jun 19, 2007

Like Friends Should Be

">I love you, you love me, we're best friends like friends should be. Barney sings that every morning. My children watch, and I cringe. Not the usual stuffed-purple-Barney-hating cringe. Its the like friends should be clause that gets to me. Why is a best friend something that friends should be? What's wrong with being good friends? What's wrong with being likeable, having lots of friendly acquaintances, and several solid confidantes? What's the big deal about a best friend? What's the agenda here?

From what I can tell a best friendship is a contract--an agreed upon commitment of sorts, like marriage. Two regular friends agree that they are best friends. Someone must have to take that first chance, like lean in for the first kiss, or say the first I love you. And then, if the other agrees, you have a best friendship.

Until college I'd never had a best friend. I was great at being friends with lots of people. I wasn't bothered by those strange couplings that were the best friends in my high school; I enjoyed my free-agent status. I could be flattered and pleasantly surprised by invitations and attentions, and I seldom felt left out or jealous since I wasn't in an official committed friendship with anyone. Of course the concept of one best friend wasn't new to me, the opportunity had just never presented itself. I knew it was an important bond, but without having ever had the comfort, support, and knowing safety of a best friend, I didn't know what I was missing. I enjoyed dipping in and out of different sorts of intimacies with different sorts of people. I was good at that.

You're my best friend! declared my freshman roommate within a few weeks of moving in to our college dormitory room. I was flattered and surprised. She already had a best friend whom she spoke of all the time. Dianna (two ns) wrote weekly letters and mailed them in best friend-ish decorated envelopes: hearts, squiggles, happy faces, little bluebirds like the kind that circle Cinderella's head. We went to visit Dianna, she came to visit us. I honored their best friendship.

So there I was in my dorm room, seventeen years old, and all of a sudden I was someone's best friend. Someone wanted to hitch their wagon to me. It felt good; could I be that special to someone? What a rush! Dianna's flowery envelopes started to look pitiful, hopeful--so did the pictures of the two of them gripping each other drunkenly. Dianna had been dethroned and I was never sure she had been properly notified. Surely she would have cared, this best friendship being so big and important and strong and powerful.

The college roommate and I were best friends for seven years. People mistook us for one another when we answered the phone, and lumped us together in all situations. We served as seals of approval for each other; like having a your own personal notary public sign off on and/or vouch for every intimacy or transaction. Our public claim to each other must have served as insight into deeper parts of our personalities--(hmmm, she seems kinda crunchy, but her best friend is so stylish,--or the reverse--she seems so materialistic but look her best friend's sooo laid back!). We told each other everything, finished each other's sentences--we were formidable when paired together in games like charades.

And then it was over, almost as quickly as it had happened--taken away as effortlessly as it had been bestowed. Her move away from me was emotional as well as physical; she left the friendship and the city in a hurry, and without satisfactory explanation. A lot of people were shaken up by the break up (think Simon and Garfunkel, think Laverne and Shirley, think Paris and Nicole--); ours had been the ideal friendship in the eyes of others. Everyone became a Monday morning quarterback: maybe she was jealous of you? maybe she thought people only liked her because she was best friends with you? maybe some psychiatrist told her she was too dependent on you?

No one knew what happened, and no one knows to this day. Eventually, mutual friends stopped pressuring her for reasons. I could write a novel about the wheres and the whys and the hows of the end of our friendship, but in a nutshell, that was that.

There was some relief. She was a social worker who instigated long monotonous TALKS in order to smooth over small jealousies. I could certainly live without those. But there was also devastation. How could the person who knew me so well want to stop knowing me at all? Weren't best friends supposed to stick together no matter what? I felt insignificant.

I've gotten married, had children, and made many new friends since then and there's still a part of me that remains vulnerable and wounded when it comes to the subject of best friends.

No man is alone (or is it poor?) who has friends, right? Isn't that the moral of Its a Wonderful Life? That's the kind of moral I found myself bumping into all the time back when the break-up was still fresh. Curiously, it still seems to be the pot of gold at the end of every moral rainbow. I know now that my one best friend wasn't the healthiest introduction to what a best friend could be (it occurs to me that she was sort of a 'you're my best friend' junkie). But our connection was real. And it's part of my story now. There hasn't been anyone else.

From what I can tell best friends come easily to young children and a lucky few are able to preserve that best friendship forever. The first days of Elementary School, Middle School, High School and College all seem to be good times to claim a new best friend. People don't tend to come to those phases of life saddled with other responsibilities, and a great sense of importance and meaning permeates everything in these typically cloistered academic environments. But what's a twenty-five year old to do to find a best friend? How about a thirty year old? Do I still have a chance at finding a best friend at forty? Do I want one? (Barney thinks I should have one)

I picture a nursing-home-widows, bridge-partner kind of best-friendship as a possibility for my final years. But what about the thirty years between now and then? What happens if you don't have a best friend because your all-consuming best friend just up and left you? What if there was no obvious friend to be a bridesmaid so you just finagled something tasteful with your sister and sister-in-law-to-be and walked, best-friendless, up the aisle. What then?

Sure there's the husband as best friend idea, but come on. My sweet husband doesn't want to hear the fifteen minute emotional version of the two second stubbed-toe story. He doesn't enjoy looking for deeper meaning in the words of sales clerks and co-workers. He can't fill in the gaps of a hilarious remember-when story by naming what earrings, whose shirt, and which shorts I was wearing. My husband's a good friend. We do a great job of balancing roles, kids, ideas, conversations, and we also know when to just let things go. But if we stayed up all night sharing notes with the fervor and fever of best friends no one would be paying the bills.

Of course I have lots of friends. Women I adore and feel close to. Intellectually, I know it doesn't matter that I don't have one best friend, but sometimes I wish the world would just shut up about how great it is (that means you too, Oprah).

Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other's gold! Give me a break. Why doesn't anyone talk about the pain of a long friendship ending? Am I really alone in this experience? Why did I have to feel freakishly like I had gone through a divorce in a world that doesn't understand because it's so busy worshipping the almighty best-friend? I already feel like enough of a loser without a best friend. Am I really supposed to be feeling this way?

My son has already had a best friend come and go--he seems fine with it but I watch from the sidelines holding my breath. At four, he seems to be able to handle hearing 'you're not my friend anymore'. He shrugs and moves on. I feel the pain he doesn't.

And I cringe every time my daughter's friend's babysitter chides the two of them for squabbling. 'You're best friends!' she shouts, repeatedly handing the three year olds this potent phrase. During a recent tug-of-war over some small toy, the pal screamed 'you're not my best friend anymore!' Egad. It's the best friend version of the 'maybe they'll get married when they grow up,' thing heard commonly by ecstatic parents as they look on while two infants of different sexes tumble around together. And it's just as annoying.

Given my history with the whole best friend thing, it's understandable that I worry about the trouble this may cause down the road. But I remind myself that my kids might be ok in the long run because they'll get to experience friend-difficulties when they're young--before these best friends get all tangled up in emerging adult identities. Maybe I wouldn't have been so burned if I'd learned the painful lessons as a kid on a playground and not when I was in my nervous twenties in a big city wondering what kind of impact I might have on the world and learning that, in truth, I wasn't even having a positive impact on the person who knew me best.

So at this point it looks like there will be no BFF to deliver a tearful and knowing eulogy for me. There won't be that one unrelated 'aunt' who can see, in my children, all that she loved about me at that age, and embarrass me in front of them. I'm told that time heals all wounds, but fifteen years after being dumped, I'm still baffled by the whole best friend gig. I can't protect my children from being hurt by friendships, and it looks as though I won't be able to protect myself from reliving my own loss and confusion as I send them out into the dangerous world of friend-making and friend-keeping. Sadly, the only advice I could give them--to run the other direction from anyone promising a best friendship--seems futile in this la-la land of buddy movies, happy endings, and sappy lies like 'lovers come and go but friendship lasts 4 ever!' Maybe in the meantime, I should just turn off Barney.

Jun 4, 2007

Mothers Wild

I’m not someone who takes it personally that other women look great or are wildly successful, or both. Usually. I recognize that I have made choices in my own life that add up to who I am now, where I am now, and who and where I’m not. A nice neat equation. Art major + didn’t go to grad school + wanted summers free = Art Teacher. Art teacher + 3 kids = stay-at-home mom. Eats whatever I want to eat + doesn’t work out = soft body, low energy but never hungry. Soft body, low energy + 3 kids + no job= sluggish and sleepy and unmotivated (but never hungry).

I’m basically happy and healthy despite some bad habits and general laziness--and am not threatened by other women because I have no regrets and because I can do the math. Good for them. Good for me. Great.

I know women who work hard to look great. I know women who look great without working hard. I know women who’ve fought for powerful jobs, I know women who just put the time in and reaped the rewards more gradually. I know who these women are and I respect them. I’m not them and that’s okay.

But it turns out I don’t do well with surprises. And I’ve been learning lately that when you befriend women who’ve just given birth and then you get to be really close thanks to all the shared experiences--boredom, music classes, sleepless nights, fights with spouses, meltdowns of all varieties--and when all of that squishiness begins to melt away as everyone (mostly everyone) starts to return to being the kind of women they were way back when--way back before the first baby, back when they were who someone fell in love with, back when they were who they were that decided to live in New York, back when they were the sum of a lot of experiences that had nothing to do with being moms--there’s a lot to be surprised about.

And sometimes I feel a little bit betrayed.

It’s like the mom-version of Joker’s Wild all the time now that the kids are getting older. Pull the lever and...Mother, Mother! Wall Street Tycoon! Mother, Mother! Film-maker! Mother, Mother! Pulitzer prize nominated novelist! Mother, Mother! Skinny Fashion Magazine Person!

Soft women I met when all our babes were six weeks old are now hard. Curves chiselled, wobbles whittled. Bodies snapped back--after a three or four year stretch of fleshy momminess--to being strong and athletic.

Me? I’ve always been soft, just couldn’t wait to have babies to justify it. Imagine how at home I felt in the midst of all these new moms! I assumed we were in agreement about satisfying the chocolate cravings that continued for years after the babies were born. I assumed we were serious about being content to continue wearing big ol’ stretchy maternity underwear. I assumed we were all going to throw in the towel on ambition in the face of such newly imbalanceable lives.

When did they all sneak out and work out? When were they eating right in the presence of all those birthday cupcakes? When did they get enough sleep to get back to their computers? Their art studios?

Our conversations, even after two years of friendship, were so now-oriented (diaper brands, weaning theories) even when literary (‘anyone read the New Yorker article on Ferber?’ ‘are stay-at-home moms doing a disservice to their children?’) that in one case I learned a pal and I had very similar (former) professional lives so late in the game it was bizarre. Turned out in addition to stocking the same snacks in our stroller bags and making the same snide comments about other mothers’ inabilities to set limits, we taught art in similar private schools and knew many of the same people.

I’m proud to know these women. Proud to have breastfed alongside them, navigated the nuances of the neighborhood nannies, pondered the politics of playgroup, glued ourselves to each otoher in desperation, but I could have used a heads-up on who they were planning to return to being when all the babies toddled off to school.

Maybe they could have worn nametags with previews of their lives to come. Dancer, size 2 might have been nice. Val shrunk down to nothing, and revealed a passion for modern dance. I didn’t see that coming. Rich party-girl, size 6 might’ve helped. I tried to keep up with Victoria’s lunching-out habit until I realized she was light-years ahead of me financially and nutritionally. Every time she ate a salad I ate a meatloaf sandwich with gravy. I just thought she was uninspired food-wise, didn’t realize it was part of a get-skinny-to-get-back-to-the-clubs plan. Writer/runner, Ballerina/photographer, Sculptor/athlete. Huh? I’m blown away by who these women have become, and equally blown away by my assumption that I’d landed among soul-sisters in a similar stagnate stage of life.

I had no vision of who I’d be after becoming a mom. I always knew I wanted to be a mom. I was awestruck at the thought of being a mom. Being a mom was my happy ending. My Disney wedding. I didn't give much thought to what I'd do afterwards.

I continued to teach until my youngest was two, then walked away from my career to be at home. I thought I was entering a life full of all the vibrant moms I knew. What a fun mom-house we’d all inhabit together! Like Millionaire Acres in the Game of Life. We’d park our little pretend cars in the pretend driveway, have lunch together and worry together and live out our years together.

But as I was walking through the revolving door on the way in, they were all heading out. Back to work, back to writing colonies, back to skinny jeans, back to shopping at Barneys, back to jaunting off to Europe. Back to who they were before I got to know them and thought they were who they seemed to be--sluggish, sleepy, soft and slightly unsatisfied (like me). I hadn’t counted on this.

My entire life was one arrow leading to motherhood. So I landed here and built a cozy nest with all the other moms--we got all snuggled in, all synched up, and in some cases got pregnant second and third times together. And now they reveal that their arrows continue on, pointing above, beyond, pointing out of the mom-nest. I don’t have these arrows. I didn’t really know they existed.

Last weekend I ran into a dad at a Little League game and learned that his wife, my friend Patty, was running the four-mile loop through the park and would meet up with us later. Running through the park? Good for her! Another friend getting back into the groove. Great. Just great.