Friday, March 27, 2009
I guess we find out soon enough. Lowenstein’s been in preschool to observe my little Good Will Hunting a few times. She called today to schedule an appointment for next week. “I’ll tell you what I think is going on with The Boy.” Righty-O. What is going on with The Boy? Part of me fantasizes that it’s entirely contextual; that he’s fine – whatever the hell “fine” means – and he just needs some details of his environment tweaked to get it right.
But why is that what I’m secretly hoping for when it’s so open-ended and unhelpful? Where would that leave us? I know in my heart that it’s not true, anyway. It’s been clear to me for years now that something is, indeed, “going on” with that boy. I took it on myself. Stepped up the parenting skills to eleven. And now I’m at the point where I just can’t be objective, or even know which end is up. His teacher asks me for suggestions and sometimes I honestly just don’t freaking know.
Hence, the evaluation. Some people are reluctant to slap a label on their kid, and I can definitely understand why. A label can change everything. A big, implication-heavy label. Something about which articles are published. Something that will pick us up out of this nice little identity I’ve dreamed up for the family and put us back down way over there where I don’t know the language. Something that will draw attention away from his intelligence and creativity and put it squarely on his differences.
But really, that’s already happening without the label anyway. His anxiousness, his anger, his strange aversions, his boundless energy. None of that translates into optimum classroom behavior. And people don’t like it.
I see the dad who yelled at me at school that time and I just want to hide. I can’t even look at the back of his head. My heart rate goes up through the roof. “I’m sick of you, I’m sick of your kid! He should be kicked out of school!” That was more than two weeks ago and still no apology. The preschool administrator tells me “it may be more due to shame and embarrassment than thinking what he did was right.” I hope so. I could sleep so much better if I knew for certain that he felt remorse for treating somebody's mother like that (in front of a playground full of kids and parents, no less).
Which, again, shifts my focus way the hell away from where it might do anything useful. So some loser dad had a “George is givin’ it to T-Bone” moment with me on the playground. I can curse his name until the day I die and it won’t do my son any good.
So, back to The Boy. There’s so much to love about him. And I’m not the only one who sees it, either. He charms just about anyone who talks to him. He’s so well-spoken, so smart, with an astounding depth of knowledge on dinosaurs, ancient Egypt, ocean life, and all things Lego-related. He builds and builds with anything he can get his hands on. He has such joy in him. Such love. He used to curl up with me and say “Mommy, I’m your baby tiger.” Of course if I remind him of that now, he just grits his teeth and gives me the stink eye. But he still loves to be cuddly.
And he loves his friends so much. I attended a lecture on children’s social lives recently, and the speaker defined cliques as “cocoons of safety.” “When we’re at our most different, we seek to create sameness,” she said. And I can see this happening before my eyes. School used to make him so anxious, to the point where he’d freak out if we ran into a family from school at the beach or something. But this year, he’s made his own friends at school without the least bit of facilitation on my part. It’s downright heartwarming, really.
I think it’s all this binary thinking that’s screwing me up. You’d think I’d have evolved past it by now. Obviously whatever label he ends up with doesn’t discount any of these wonderful things. The label is mostly just a key to free services through the school district next year. It’s a tool for understanding how to help him succeed instead of trying to cram him through some door that just doesn’t fit and never will. He’ll be happier. We’ll be happier. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.
The truth is, I’m so ashamed. Not of him. Of myself. I’ve never been quite right either. I had my own brand of childhood anxiousness and strange aversions. (Unlike The Boy, though, I was much more “flight” than “fight.”) For years I believed somewhere in my heart that there was something fundamentally wrong with me, that I was just plain defective somehow. I learned over time to embrace my strangeness and make it work for me. But how quickly that all comes undone at times like this.
Luckily, I know it won’t stay undone for long. If I can just figure out how to stop listening to the noise . . . if I can just stop trying to convince everyone that my son is a good boy and I am a good mother; accept that I don’t need anyone’s affirmation but my own . . . if I can just live each day joyfully with these amazing kids that I’m so lucky to have . . . Well, we’ll get there. Gradually.
Tomorrow there’s no school. The Boy’s getting a much-needed haircut and then we’ll visit the fancy cupcake place next door. And we’ll take it from there.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
We made a list of all the new, daring things we were going to try – most of which were impractical, some of which were illegal, many of which were said for pure shock value with no intention or desire to actually follow through. Only two items on that list actually came to fruition:
1. See as many films in the upcoming Philadelphia Gay & Lesbian Film Festival as we could, and
2. Answer two personal ads each in our city’s weekly alterna-freebie and actually go on the dates.
That’s right, young ’uns. This was the mid-1990’s before the widespread use of mainstream online dating services. But our free weekly city paper had pages and pages of personal ads written by lonely post-collegiate slacker-bees like ourselves. Some of the ads were awful, of course. But many were surprisingly clever, infused with irony, pop culture references, and quirkily endearing descriptions of the writer. You’d feel a little buzz just reading them, maybe imagining some attractive face or other you’d seen at the video store or someplace but were too pragmatic to start a conversation.
There was something so hopeful about that. Here was a place where all the like-minded singles of the city laid their cards on the table. No guessing, no risk of embarrassment. Your attention was welcome; requested, even. All you had to do was pick your favorite.
For my two I chose Bill, a computer programmer and musician, and Aaron, a lover of literature. Clyde picked a man who worked for a film company and a college girl who claimed to be conducting a “social experiment.” Neither of us knew what that meant, but he was very intrigued.
That was the first of our four dates. She’d arranged to meet him at the snottiest coffee house in town. As planned, I stationed myself at the falafel place across the street in case things didn’t work out. Clyde joined me only about 20 minutes later, irritated and discouraged. Turns out the “social experiment” consisted of the student and her friend cross-examining him about why he answers personal ads in the first place. Lots of leading questions and twisting of his words led them to the inevitable conclusion that Men Who Answer Personal Ads are Pigs. Poor Clyde.
For our next dates, we came up with the sitcom-worthy scheme to arrange them at the same time at the same restaurant. We would pretend not to know each other, but keep an eye on each other to stay safe and maybe offer some feedback later. Zany!
But by now, my feet were getting awfully cold. The thought of going on a date with someone I’d never seen before suddenly terrified me. Walking around center city on my lunch break, I studied every face that passed by and marveled at the seemingly endless ways in which a person can be unattractive. It boggles the mind. What if my date looked like that guy? Or that guy? How powerful would the chemistry have to be to overcome it? And is chemistry even possible when there’s absolutely no physical attraction whatsoever?
Clyde met me at my apartment after work. We had some beers and joked around. I was feeling so comfortable and happy, all I wanted to do was sink into the futon and watch Friends. It looked like rain. I pleaded with Clyde not to make me go, but he insisted. He had the whole thing planned. He even made sure we got off at different subway stops so we wouldn’t be seen walking up to the restaurant together.
I spotted my date from across the street and was instantly disappointed. I can’t even really say why. He was attractive enough, or at least not eye-blisteringly ugly. It was just . . . maybe something awkward in the way he was standing. Or the way his ridiculously large umbrella obscured most of his head, and it wasn’t even raining yet. Or the way he wore a tucked-in button-down shirt with vertical purple stripes that screamed late-1980’s Chess King. And from the look on his face, I could tell he was just as politely disappointed in me.
I didn’t see Clyde anywhere in the restaurant. Determined to make the best of things, I ordered a fancy girl’d-up martini and a huge plate of mushroom ravioli, which I threw down with two hands and a foot. Bill was talking about electronic music or some such when I saw Clyde heading for the restrooms. I excused myself and caught up with him. We huddled by the kitchen door, out of sight, trying not to laugh hysterically.
“Your guy is cute!” he whisper-exclaimed. “My guy looks like an alien! Can we trade?”
“This was the worst idea ever!” I hissed. “I just want to go home.”
“Me too, me too. But we can’t just leave in the middle of dinner.” Our waiter crossed by and did a double-take. We smiled sheepishly. “Okay,” Clyde said. “How about we finish up here and then I’ll meet you back at your place.”
“I love that idea,” I said. And I did. The thought of just relaxing in my living room with a friend felt so amazing. Why was I even bothering with these lame dates in the first place?
I paid my half of the check and took the subway most of the way home. The rain finally hit just as I was leaving the station, clattering down in a huge summer shower. I watched each new trainload of passengers get off, hoping to see Clyde so we could share the mad rain-soaked dash back to my building together. Funny how getting caught in the rain alone is so degrading, but getting caught in the rain with a friend is a hilarious adventure.
After a while, though, I gave up and headed home alone. Maybe I’d missed him. Maybe he was waiting for me in the lobby. But he wasn’t there. A thunderstorm raged on. Eventually I went to bed, worried. The whole point in going on this date together was to keep each other safe. What if his alien date turned out to be some evil homophobe, just as his “social experiment” date planted that ad simply to attack the men who answered it? I sprung out of bed and called his place frantically, but there was no answer.
Clyde called me at work the next day. Turns out he’d gone back to the alien’s place after all and had a magical evening. Men.
Meanwhile, I still had one more date left with Aaron, the literature guy. I decided to brave this one alone. I chose a little bistro around the corner from my apartment. My building had a doorman and I lived on the 20th floor. I figured I could make a hasty escape if I needed to.
I made the mistake of wearing a new shirt which I’d never really given a proper test drive. This shirt, which had looked great when standing still in front of a dressing room mirror, had an unfortunate habit of slipping with my every move to reveal way more cleavage than is advisable on a first date. The guy’s eyes bugged so far out of his head, for a minute I worried that I’d forgotten to wear a shirt at all.
But I doubt a more conservative outfit would have made much of a difference. There was something terrifyingly eager about him. He was smitten. He sighed blissfully at just about everything I said. He took each ordinary detail about me and declared it proof that we’d be so great together.
I tried to stop being so damn fascinating, I really did. I turned all my love and affection to my bowl of spinach lentil soup and coconut soda, but even that seemed to enchant him. A woman who lets herself enjoy food with reckless abandon! How amazing! (And honestly, I usually love when someone is attracted to my chow-hounditutde. But this was not the night.) I paid my half of the check and ran like the wind, vowing to stay far, far away from the personal ads from here on in.
But Aaron kept calling. For two weeks, he’d leave messages on my answering machine stating the exact minute of his call. I figured sooner or later he’d get the hint and leave me alone. But no. The calls kept coming.
Finally, I called him back and tried to let him down easily. But he wasn’t having it. How could I just decide I didn’t want to date him based on one date? What possible reasons could I have? I’d try to give him some weak, feelings-sparing line, but he deftly deconstructed each one. I’d try again, and he’d find more semantic loopholes, disproving my every argument and insisting that we should be together. So I had to be more direct.
“Look,” I said, “this just isn’t going to work out. I’m just not interested in dating you. Please stop arguing with me, because my answer is no. No!”
“I see,” he said icily. “Well, thank you. Thank you very much. Not for your kindness, but for your abruptitude.” And with that, he hung up the phone.
Abruptitude? Oh well. At least it was over. I put down the phone and headed for the kitchen, wondering what I could find to snack on – RING!
I picked up the phone. It was Aaron again, calling to apologize for hanging up on me. And then he wanted to argue some more. How could I just discount him like this for no reason? How could I just decide that I didn’t want to date him without even bothering to get to know him better? What sort of psychological problems must I have to lead me to make such a self-destructive decision?
I somehow managed to extract myself from the conversation, hung up, and called Clyde. I was shaky and sputtering, cursing his name for ever encouraging me to go through with this ridiculous plan in the first place.
“Give me his number,” Clyde calmly insisted. And I did.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but Clyde called me back a few minutes later, laughing. Turns out he’d called Aaron pretending to be an irate pizza delivery guy. (“Yeah, I got a pizza here for Aaron! You called and ordered a pizza and you don’t answer the door! Now I’m standing out in the rain! Are you Aaron? You owe me sixteen bucks! It’s raining out here!” Et cetera.) Clyde flustered old Aaron as badly as he’d flustered me.
We laughed on the phone together for a long time. Silly as it was; ridiculous, pointless, and mean as it was . . . I loved Clyde to pieces for it. In some absurd way, that stupid prank phone call was one of the nicest things anyone had ever done for me. The way he just unconditionally stood up to someone who was upsetting me and sent him running . . . no one outside the family had ever really done that for me before.
We said goodnight, and I looked out my window at the city, 20 stories below. Everything was so far away, and what was down there wasn’t very welcoming in the first place. The smelly old corner grocery store. The Chinese restaurant still recovering from a recent fire. It couldn’t have been later than 8:00, but the streets were dark and nearly empty already.
I thought of all those people out there in the bars, clubs, and ironically furnished apartments just trying to find each other and be a little less lonely for a while. You’d think it would be easier, kinder somehow. We all wanted the same thing, after all. And yet, here I was: sitting alone and above the fray, where a prank phone call was the warmest gesture of love and fidelity I could get my hands on.
And so it goes. I went back to the kitchen in search of the immediate comforts of snacks, TV, and a kitty on my lap.
Sunday, March 1, 2009
Okay, so my big day isn’t until August 29. But an old friend is working on a scheme to craft song lyrics out of his friends’ ruminations on turning 40. Since I’m just a girl who can’t say no to every “List Things About Yourself” meme that Facebook sends my way, I’m delighted to help him out. I’ll do my “turning 40” navel-gaze ahead of time and spend my real 40th birthday cavorting on the Oregon coast with the Fam, drinking local microbrews on some motel balcony with Mr. Black after the kids go to bed.
So, here we go. My thoughts on turning 40 (um, in August):
1. Bring it on. I look around and 40 really feels like the right age for me to be. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I can honestly say that. I’m not grasping anymore, no longer pouring volumes of frenetic energy toward some nebulous end, no longer spilling time into pleasing middle managers or would-be boyfriends. I never expected to feel so well-suited to being settled. But there it is.
2. I’m sure we all miss our young bodies, but these older bodies aren’t so bad. I love the smirk-wrinkle on one side of my mouth. I love how crushingly heavy Mr. Black’s chest feels on mine now. And at the pool, there’s something wonderfully endearing – sexy even – in the love handles, scars, and office-job tans on our fellow almost-fortysomethings. We are men and women of the world, and this is how it shows.
3. I can’t believe how not-forty I dress. I still have floppy hair and a wardrobe of old jeans and T-shirts. If it’s not sandals, it’s hiking shoes or beat-up old clogs. Right now I’m wearing a sweater of my dad’s that I borrowed from him my senior year of college. But maybe that just makes me the female version of “gray-haired ponytail guy,” the frizzled would-be adolescent who doesn’t realize his age is showing. That’s a familiar sight here in the Northwest. At least I’m in good company.
4. It’s a little embarrassing that I’ve achieved very little professionally. I’ve had plenty of interesting, decent-paying jobs. But I never found much to be passionate about at work, other than delicious paychecks and health insurance. In fact, I’ve been a mom for longer than I’ve held any one paying job. Yikes.
5. It’s even more embarrassing that I’ve achieved very little creatively. Very little indeed. In college I wrote, acted, did improv comedy, and drew a comic strip with some friends for the school paper. I’m pretty certain I was hopelessly mediocre at all of it. But at the time I felt so charged by it all; illuminated by the mere process of writing, comedy, whatever. I didn’t have the first idea how to pick any of it up and turn it into a career, or even a post-graduate hobby. So I didn’t.
Maybe that was a mistake and maybe it wasn’t. Maybe I had more pressing things to sort out for myself first. I will say, though, that starting this blog is one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. Finally finding a “voice” at my age and having a space to blab it all over the place has been … mmm, words ironically fail. And I love that you folks actually read it. /hugfest
6. I’ll be 40 when my oldest child starts kindergarten. Sometimes I can’t help but feel a little self-conscious about that. There’s always the “why did you wait so long?” question. Like I dropped the ball or something. When my mom was 40, I was graduating from high school. What the hell took me so long? It’s not like I had some brilliant career to focus on. No, I was simply unlucky in relationships and then unlucky in carrying a pregnancy to term. This is how it all worked out. And yet . . .
7. . . . Being a 40-year-old new mom is sometimes mistaken for a token of privilege. It’s assumed that I chose this path so I could rack up money and status before having my children completely on my own terms (presumably with the help of costly medical reproductive assistance). I overheard some younger moms on the playground complaining about the patronizing rich-bitch older moms in their circle. Then they all merrily agreed that they would have the last laugh, because they’ll still be young and vibrant when the kids leave the nest (while moms like me will be old hags grappling with cancer, I suppose). Which reminds me . . .
8. . . . How old will my children be when my health starts to decline? What if I don’t get to see the adults they’ll become?
9. My sisters and I used to get together over Christmas break and bond over whatever friend/lover drama was happening at the time. Last Christmas, it was less like a chick movie and more like . . . well, life. Real estate predicaments. Job insecurity. Our children and their various health issues. The looming truth that we’re not those sparkling girls in our parents’ house anymore. We occupy the space more heavily somehow. We eye our parents cautiously, maybe making some awkward steps toward the caretaking they don’t yet need. We can sense a critical shift in the family dynamic somewhere in the future. Hopefully the distant future. But you can never be sure.
10. I don’t underestimate the comfort I find in a happy marriage and parenthood. But it doesn’t quell the loneliness or dread that aging inspires. We’re all the “crazy cat lady,” married or not, parents or not. We’re all alone. There are deep, unreachable places in our hearts that aren’t even meant to be filled by other humans, and we feel these empty spaces profoundly sometimes. Like when you’re sprawled on the bathroom floor with a killer migraine and the kids keep banging on the door. Or when you tell your partner “I’m worried” and instead of a comforting hug you get the Nixon eyes and semantic defenses. There’s that moment in a conversation when you realize you just can’t explain yourself any further, so you sigh and retreat. Relationships are process. They’re not an end, by any means.
11. At the playground last weekend, I saw a couple that made me want to burst into a rousing chorus of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Hello Young Lovers.” Children were streaming by in every direction while parents chatted and helped them on the swings and the monkey bars. Into this scene strode two bed-head twentysomethings so obviously new to each other, so clearly on their way to or from a diner brunch after a gorgeously unfamiliar morning after in each others’ arms. They played on the playground equipment with as much joy as the children, smiling more widely when the other one wasn’t looking.
And I caught the young woman checking us out on the jungle gym, just as I used to check out families on playgrounds on the morning-after walks of my twenties. There’s that brief moment when you suspend your cynical resolve and let yourself wonder “Could this be me? Could this be us?” I wanted to high-five her or something. Or at least give a nod in affirmation. I wanted to let her know that this world is not the distant planet it appears to be. Motherhood is no more mental freeze than academic jargon or a bad student play. And middle-aged or not, we’re the same people with the same loves, insecurities, and creativity that we had twenty years ago. Sometimes we look around and can’t quite believe we’re here either. But we’re still ourselves. That really, truly does not change.