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Won't you sign in, stranger?

And then it got even weirder:


"Mama, I spelled another word!  Want to see it?"  Jesus, no, I do not.

"It says dead because there is a poison tank under the floor," he explained, "and it's filled with poison.  If you step on it you'll diiiiie." Which meant it got a little comical as I tried to convince him to pose for a picture with his project.  "But it's poison," he protested in a tone of Witness! This bitch is crazy.  So there he was, sensibly maintaining a safe distance from the 55-gallon drum of fugu toxin I keep in the basement for when I want to make homemade Lunchables.  And there I was saying things like, "Charlie.  Charlie!  Go.  Sit on.  The poison!"

Some people want kids so they can tell a small person, "I love you."  What can I say?  I zig where others zag.

But our alphabetical brush with the Grim Reaper was just a funky little variation in my usual morning harangue, and I don't want to get distracted.  I wanted to write a bit about the weekend.  Paul took Charlie on a camping trip with a bunch of friends of his — Paul's friends, not Charlie's, although, hah, I am enjoying that mental image, calculating exactly how long it would take for the whole thing to go all Lord of the Flies, and I believe the relevant unit of measure is the zippy little picosecond — and I took Ben to Boston to see Steely Dan.  Or more accurately, I took Ben to Boston and entrusted him to the tender mercies of a stranger while I went to see Steely Dan.  Not only a stranger to him, but a stranger to me.

I'd said to my friend T. a few months back that they were playing in Boston and I was going to figure out a way to go to the show.  The camping trip was already on the calendar, so I knew I'd need to come up with child care for Ben, possibly involving Paul's sister who lives an hour from there, possibly asking my Bostonian friends inside the computer for sitters you'd vouch for, possibly seeing if Ben could secure a one-night internship with the hotel's valet parking outfit.  It wasn't entirely clear how it was all going to shake out, but shake out it surely would.  And it did!  Because it turns out I love Steely Dan enough to leave my child with someone I'd never met.

When I was telling T. about the concert, she said she'd be in the area and could spare a weekend, and asked if I'd like company.  Now, there are many, many advantages to spending time with her.  She's funny and she's game and she loves good food — oh, we went to Formaggio Kitchen, which some of you recommended a million years ago when I went to Boston with Julia, and thank you for the pointer, because although Ben didn't much care for the wedge of Vieille Chaussette or the blob of Funque Affreux, we did, oh, we did — but one of T.'s defining characteristics is that she's effective.  And as soon as she was along for the ride, she was on the sitter tip.

We ended up with a college student, niece of one of T.'s friends, with whom I spoke only briefly before Saturday night.  She showed up at our hotel room exactly on time, a cheerful, clear-eyed, nicely groomed young person who inspired confidence in me immediately, if not in my small son, who clung to me like a baby howler monkey to the chest fur of its mother.  (No cracks about my own chest fur.  It may be less luxuriant, but it is also free of vermin.)

Ben didn't want me to leave.  Of course he didn't want me to leave.  (He was perfectly happy for T. to leave, as he saw her quite narrowly as That Lady I'm Left Alone with While Mama Is in the Shower and Who Will Not Let Me Clamber Sobbing into the Bathtub After Her, That Perfidious Whore.)  Although I'd spent almost an hour with Ben and the sitter while they got acquainted, and she got down on the floor and acted all peaceable and non-threatening-like, and she even presented him with some French fries, which is kind of like...well, kind of like giving me expensive pâté and cheese, which is to say I will happily spend the night with anyone who does it, Ben wanted absolutely no part of it.

He cried as we were leaving.  He cried, the sitter reported, while he was going to sleep.  That would have been before the first thrusting beats of "The Royal Scam," which opened the show.  Before the nice little surprise of "Any Major Dude," a song with a lyric that felt like a lifeline now and then before our kids: "Any minor world that breaks apart falls together again," which has indeed proven true.  Before I stood there among 3500 other fans, every one of us openmouthed, not believing I was hearing "Dr. Wu" live — y'all, they just do not play that song live.

(Sat there, not stood.  T. and I were admonished during the concert when, moved by the music, we stood to dance.  I expected this based on the last time I saw them; T., whose live music taste runs more to Springsteen, was shocked.  But the only widespread dancing before the encore was a stiff little bob of the neck, about two degrees off vertical, then safely back to the upright and locked position.  We are all so old and white, we Dan fans.  No wonder we don't dance.  Someone could break a hip.)

It's a strange feeling, leaving your kid unhappy, knowing he's going to be unhappy until he sleeps, and doing it anyway, and...not really worrying about it.  That night in the hotel room, while the final encore still circled around in my head ("Dirty Water," and now that I think about it, what an incredibly unpleasant metaphor I chose, huh?  That there is writing, folks), I thought about it all.

I left Ben with someone I'd never met, someone not even my friend had met.  Friend of a friend of a friend, pretty much.  And I didn't feel a moment of disquiet about it.  I don't even know; do people even do this?  (I know a surprisingly large number of people whose kids are three or four and have never been left with a sitter at all, much less someone unknown to their children, muuuuch less someone unknown to themselves.)

I started to ask why many of us don't, but instead I'll say why I did — beyond the obvious, the selfish and voracious desire to enjoy myself that must be satisfied at all costs.  I did it because I trust that people are, with rare exceptions, generally good.  And that I believe a good friend of my good friend wouldn't recommend her niece if she'd had any reservations about her abilities.  That network of faith is, right at the moment, strong enough for me.  If I think of it as a web, I can imagine putting a finger onto one ray of it, giving it a pluck, and finding it reassuringly sound.  Other rays might be weaker, other fingers more sensitive, other plucks more jarring.  But for the purpose I needed it to perform, this one strand held nicely.

Charlotte dies at the end, by the way.  I can only blame society.

And I was also thinking about Ben crying.  He cried when we left, and I knew he would; I warned the sitter that he'd probably cry at bedtime, even as he does at home with me.  (90 seconds, every night, no matter what.  But why?  Maybe it's the toys in his crib.)  And although I'm sorry in a general way that he has moments of sadness or dissatisfaction, I found myself largely unconcerned by the knowledge that he was having them in the arms of someone he didn't know, without me there to comfort him.  If I'd been there he wouldn't have needed comfort — but that would have meant I wasn't out doing something that really mattered to me.

T.'s theory, and it is one I'm considering, is that it may be a mistake to overcomplexify — is that a word? — the emotions of babies, that they're not as complicated as they will be once the child has more experience of the world.  That babies cry when they don't get what they want, in this case the presence of a parent.  That we don't always indulge their desires, and we need not feel bad when they cry because of it.  If a baby can't distinguish between wants and needs, we adults generally can, and it's up to us to make a reasonable judgment based on that.  If we're good parents, we fulfill their needs.  We're not bad parents if we sometimes leave their wants unsatisfied.

Ben didn't have what he wanted, but he did have what he needed, a kindly person to see him to bed and to keep him safe while he slept.  If he'd been sick or laboring under a significant upset, I wouldn't have left him.  If the babysitter had been scary, I would have sent her away.  (The idea that he found her scary is not a reliable indicator.  Sometimes he finds the meow of the cat scary.  And then he cries, which freaks the cat out, so the cat runs and then hides and then keeps caterwauling from whatever sub-sofal crevice he's wedged himself into, trapped, traaaaapped, then Ben's sad that the cat is gone, like, kid, I don't get it, you were just crying because he was here, and everyone is freaked out and howling and I am left wondering why I didn't just get a nice carnivorous plant instead.  I am told they cannot weep.)

Where I am going with this, I think, is that although I recognize it is self-serving for me to feel this way — because it's possible that when it comes to Steely Dan, I'd let a Venus Flytrap babysit my child, as long as it didn't show up drunk or high — I am fine with the idea of Ben being sad with a stranger for a few hours.  And whoa, hey, it only took about 1500 words to say so!  I must be really fine with it!  Brevity really is the soul of conscientious parenting!

Now you need a breather.  I need an editor.  So let's go here:


And finally, "I used green, because you like the color green, Mama."


"...Don't you?"

Yes.  Oh, yes.  Whatever you say, if you'll just please God stop spelling.