Jul 29, 2008

Smoking My Kids

In a recent essay in The New Yorker, David Sedaris talks about taking up smoking as a young man. He said it was as if he'd been fumbling around on a stage his whole life, and then the propmaster finally showed up.

At last! He knew what to do with his hands. Finally! He had an instant conversation-starter. Sure there were downsides to smoking, but to him, they paled in comparison to what were then some pretty obvious social benefits.

I get that. I really do.

I haven't smoked a cigarette in ages, but it was an awfully convenient accessory in college, and in some of the years after. Arrive at a party before anyone else I knew? Just ask someone for a cigarette or a light...boom!...instant interaction, with little flashes of knowingness, being now a smoker engaging with another smoker.

Traveling in a foreign country? Smoking'll come in handy too. First there's the comfort of seeing familiar brands abroad, and second there's another thing to have in common with someone whose language you might never understand. Smiling eyes, engaged hands...offering a cigarette, accepting a light. Piece of cake.

It occurred to me the other night, as I arrived to pick my middle child up from soccer practice, that my children are my cigarettes. I usually take my four year old with me to these soccer games but on this particular night I didn't have her with me. I found myself hesitating before approaching the group of parents. I was on my own. No prop, no built in distraction, no obvious conversation starter. Just me and a group of people I didn't really know. Usually it's not obvious that I don't really know them, so busy am I chasing around the four year old. And if she bounds towards them, golden-retriever-like, I lump along behind her and then end up having little snippets of conversation with them. Likewise, if she decides to roll down the hill over there over and over and over, I'm perfectly comfortable setting up a blanket and sitting alone on it with a magazine, keeping an eye on her, but also keeping near her and feeling justified in my decision to set up camp away from the other grown-ups. On this particular night I didn't really know what to do. Aiming directly towards the group of other parents seemed brash and forward. My intent would be clearly visible, and if I wasn't greeted with eye contact and welcomed into the fold I wouldn't really know how to get away. But setting up camp alone seemed ridiculously unsocial. I felt naked without her. It was then that I remembered the Sedaris piece. I was on the hilltop without my prop, and I wasn't sure how to behave.

I started thinking of all the ways that my kids have been my cigarettes through the years.

The biggest thing that stands out is the first grown-up party my husband and I were invited to after our first baby was born. Of course we brought him, he was just a few months old. But this wasn't a party full of parents, it was a medical school crowd. Sleek Grey's Anatomy folk mingling, having adult conversations about adult things. Since my social life had been swallowed up by pregnancy and childbirth--meaning that it was all I was ever required to talk about, I'd completely lost the ability to chat up strangers, if we weren't talking about episiotomies or cracked nipples. So there we were, my husband and me and the baby, attempting to schmooze and mix, but really we just kind of hung out by the dip all night and tried to steer conversations towards the baby. We fought over who was going to hold him (because whoever wasn't holding him might be asked to weigh in on some topic like politics or graduate school), and the poor kid probably got about seven diaper changes. Lull in the conversation? Oop, think I should go change the baby. Kind of like having to go put OUT that cigarette.

We took the boy to Chile when he was almost two. He was a platinum blonde kid whose looks got us more and more attention the further we travelled from Santiago. In one beach town about seven hours north of the capital, every restaurant we went into seated us in a front window. Places that my husband and I might have been nervous to go into--you know that uncertain feeling at the threshold of a new place, where you wonder if it even is a restaurant? No problem when there's a baby around.

I just returned from my twentieth college reunion. I brought my four year old. It didn't make sense to many, but it made perfect sense to me; I've since found out that the proper term for her in this case is 'distance regulator'--a chapter heading in books about intimacy (and how people avoid it, I'm guessing, though I haven't peeked). It was a perfect weekend, the perfect amount of being with old friends, and the perfect amount of being interrupted--oh, excuse me for a minute, I need to make sure she finds the dessert table--as well. There were extras on hand to help out with her, but it was always ultra-convenient to have her in the periphery.

Maybe someday I'll quit. Oh wait, I mean, maybe someday my children will grow up and move away and I'll be forced to find my way back to being comfortable without them. Or maybe I'll move on to some other kind of 'distance regulator.' I have a hunch that a blackberry might do the trick.