Imagine that most of this post is backed by intermittent screaming, the kind that jerks a parent awake at night and sends her running down the hall. That was Charlie, several times a night, from the start of this post almost to its end. Here, just shove these in as you're reading, whenever you get to a comma:
--------- ✁ --------- Clip 'n' Save! --------- ✁ ---------
AAAAAAAAAAGH EEEEEEEEEEEEEE NNNNNNNNNNNNGGGGHwhyohwhyohwhyyyyyyy
His ear hurt, you see. Since he's had several ear infections, we pretty much knew the drill. You give him Tylenol, you apply a warm compress, and you dully wish for the quiet of the grave as he wakes you yet again. We did what we've always done: we comforted him in the night, held him until he relaxed, then stumbled back to bed muttering, "Oh Christ Jesus please just sleep." And took him to the doctor, who peered into Charlie's ear and said, "You know, I can't see much. There's a big ball of wax in the way." So she brought out her irrigation rig and a lighted curette and attempted to dislodge it.
She dug. Charlie screamed. The giant wax boulder didn't come out. But she'd managed, she thought, to see far enough past it to tell that his eardrum was in fact inflamed and bulging. (Suddenly realizing I'd never asked to peer into the otoscope myself, I wondered what she had seen, so I consulted the Internet. Free tip: If you're ever curious about what something INHERENTLY DISGUSTING looks like, Google Images will show you, but be warned: It is INHERENTLY DISGUSTING, and so are the fifty other unrelated INHERENTLY DISGUSTING things Google cleverly assumes you're also in the mood to see. Lissen up, Google: If I'd wanted to know what shingles plus ringworm plus throat cancer plus an ear infection plus a Speedo look like, all heaped on some poor golden retriever, I'd have searched for exactly that. ...Then it would have shown me a McRib.)
So she prescribed an antibiotic. Now, we don't give Charlie amoxicillin, for reasons that are probably more superstitious than reality-based. (We're still scarred from the last time we did, when it had INHERENTLY DISGUSTING results; I cannot believe I wrote that, here, on the Internet, to be read by people I like. I cannot believe I'm linking to it now. Don't read that. Forget I was ever here. Lock up behind you when you go.)
But amoxicillin is the preferred antibiotic for ear infections, I guess, so when the pain hadn't abated by the end of the course of Zithromax, and was in fact made worse by the analgesic drops we'd been given, back we went to another doctor. Maybe it was time to give the more effective antibiotic another try.
This doctor didn't think so. Without seeing his eardrum, she said, she didn't want to hit him with another round of drugs. When she couldn't get the wax out, either — when Charlie's keening made her falter — she prescribed different drops to help dissolve it, warning us, "If it doesn't come out on its own, and if the pain continues, we'll need to consult an ENT." And almost as an afterthought, she asked, "Charlie, is there any chance something got in your ear? A bead, a pebble...?" And I laughed, because he knows better than that.
In went the drops, on went the screaming. No wax came out, so far as I could tell, and the pain was, if anything, worse. The ENT couldn't get it out, either. So they scheduled Charlie for surgery.
I am proud of the way my kid held up. He was worried, but he kept it together, and in fact stayed very much himself, struggling hard to see every single thing in the operating room. He was still in the middle of asking, "And what does that thing do?" as he sank under the anesthesia. (It replaces your blood with zombie juice. Breathe deep! Sweet dreams! We'll see you on the flip side!)
The operation was brief, as we'd expected. Afterward the earnosethroatician stalked out to the waiting room, still in his scrubs and booties. "He had something in his ear, and it wasn't wax," he said, all scowling and j'accuse-y.
"What is it?" I asked.
"I don't know," he answered irritably. "I didn't really look. It's disgusting. You can examine it if you want," he said, leaving unsaid, "...you gruesome freak." And handed me a jar.
And there...in the jar...was a bean.
"I know that bean," said Paul in affronted recognition. He explained that it had been used in a school science unit. On seeds. And germination.
We could pinpoint the date of insertion because Paul volunteered on bean day. This particular bean had somehow gotten into Charlie's ear — soooomehowwwww — two weeks prior. During that time, in the warm murk of our son's ear canal, the bean found a comfortable home. With every drop of moisture that entered, the bean began to do...what beans do...when given dark and warmth and water.
The craziest thing is that as Charlie's pain had increased, we'd been giving him ear drops — first to relieve the pain, then to dissolve the wax. We had been unwitting abettors. We were practically farmers, when you get right down to it. We had watered Charlie's ear bean. We lovingly tended his bean.
Two hours after the operation, Charlie was as good as new. "Is it possible," I asked him, sidling up to the obvious question, "that you put the bean in your ear...without noticing? And then forgot?"
"I suppose," he said doubtfully, looking at the floor. The thing about Charlie is that it is entirely possible; in fact, it's likely. I don't believe he consciously thought, "Hey, let's cram some produce on up in there." I think he was probably absentmindedly noodling around, maybe grooving on the sensation of it — because I guess shoving something in your ear hole feels...good? — and then got distracted. For two weeks. As something started growing in his head.
So the upshot is that we had about two weeks of shrieking hell here; everything's fine now; I've labeled the jar CHARLIE'S EAR BEAN and intend to show it to his children; and when the nurse called the next day to see how he was, I invited her for cassoulet.
Posted by Julie at 04:44 PM | Comments (20)
It's the monthly birthday breakfast in Charlie's class, and I've volunteered to take food. I get up early, bake a double batch of muffins, and swear only a little when they sink in the middle and refuse to come out of their pan. This is not ideal, but okay; on the way to school I swing by Dunkin' Donuts and get a box of Munchkins, which delights Charlie far more than home-baked goods ever could.
He asks to carry the box as we walk the two blocks to school. This kid is proud of his donuts, the unexpected windfall. He swaggers with those Munchkins. I am feeling good.
When we get to the classroom we put the box on the table and he slips into class routine. I stand over with the other mothers. You need to know they're not bitches, despite what I'm going to tell you. I like them and I like their kids. I think, in the main, they're normal.
One of them says, "Ohhh, Munchkins! M. will be excited — she never gets those."
Another says, "K. will love them. I don't give her sweets at home, so this'll be quite a treat."
A few other comments to that effect and I'm feeling this nagging urge to justify myself. I say I baked, but it didn't work out. ("Oh," says one mother, "I don't ever bake. It's easier not to have that kind of stuff around.") I make a joke of my incompetence, when I know I'm a very good baker. I say the donuts were our emergency fallback. And then I hear what I'm saying and want to punch myself in the face.
I look at Charlie, who is talking, laughing, and cramming a Munchkin into his mouth simultaneously. (He is also riding his desk chair as if it were an angry bull. He goes the full eight seconds, and no rodeo clowns are harmed.)
I look around at the other kids. I know them fairly well. I like something about every one of them. I know their parents love them every bit as much as I love mine. But I get a little weird this time of year. It's hard for me to shake the knowledge of how improbable Charlie is.
And I suddenly wish I'd said, "I give Charlie Munchkins at least three times a week." Joyless granola, my pasty white ass: I want to say I stuff him full of donuts till they ooze out of his ears. I make my kid this happy all the goddamn time. "If you lick his skin," I want to say, "he tastes like honey glaze."
At seven, Charlie is worldly enough to want to be a secret agent. Smart enough — terrifying enough — to debate the merits of various kinds of explosives. Child enough to be rendered speechless by the gift of a set of "night goggles" for surveillance. And dork enough to gambol around in Technicolor footie pajamas, saying, "These are great for a secret agent. I can shove things down the leg!"
It's a tough day for me, Charlie's birthday. We've told him about how it happened, but he gets the edited version, meaning I leave out most of the pain terror vomit fear WE'RE ALL GONNA DIIIIIIIIE. It makes for a pretty short story. Ate pie, got sick, happily ever after.
So he doesn't know — can't and shouldn't — that all day long I look at the clock and think, This is when I stood in the aisle at the supermarket, tearing into that box of Zantac with shaking hands, panting and sweating from the pain. I think, By now we were in triage; in a quiet room to wait for tests; in an urgent conversation I was too drugged up to follow. I think, This is when they told me the baby had to come and wheeled me, fast, into surgery.
To shift between that and candles on a cake — well, the dissonance is profound.
Would it be better, I wonder, to live only in the moment? As Charlie gets older, the circumstances of his birth matter less and less, and I can imagine a time when I think of it only in passing. When 10:22 PM is simply the time I step on a LEGO as I go in his room to check on him, instead of that plus I heard your first cry and I'd never been more scared. I don't know; I guess it would be less disorienting. Less painful, minus the LEGO. But would some of the sweetness be lost?
Posted by Julie at 07:40 AM | Comments (98)
God, it's been so long since I wrote here that I had to enter my TypePad login and password using cuneiform. Okay, I'm exaggerating, but only a bit. Actually it was hieroglyphs. It took me a while to get in, too. I kept typing Severed Arm-Severed Arm-Snake-Zigzag-Thing That Might Be a Pelican instead of Severed Arm-Severed Leg-Ditto. And in fact it was not a pelican, but a carrion bird of prey, and I was almost overcome by the majesty of it but managed to click "Log In" before it went for my eyes.
So here I am, many ages later, and I think I am best served by going in reverse chronological order, see how far I get. Here we go.
Yesterday Charlie came home with a note from his teacher saying he had written the F-word at school. No, wait, I'm going to give her credit: She didn't get prissy. She wrote that he had written "fuck." (You know you're through the looking glass when someone using unvarnished profanity in a professional communication increases your respect for her, but that, it seems, is parenting in a nutshell. Through the F-wording looking glass, six ways from Sunday, sideways. And also the horse you rode in on, wearing its underpants backwards.)
I always laugh a little, if weakly and self-consciously, when he does stuff like that. It's so normal. There's enough of his behavior that's...let's just say outlierly...to worry about without getting all freaked out about a swear word. Even if he did write it on his nametag, like, HELLO MY NAME IS MATTER OF FACT I DO KISS MY MOTHER WITH THIS MOUTH. I don't know, I guess I think it's a little bit funny, and even almost sort of sweet, this eager lurch toward big-and-badness. My goddamn baby is growing up. Sunrise, sunset, bitches: This shit is going too fast.
Halloween was pretty fantastic. Charlie wanted to be a pirate, and Ben wanted to be Charlie, so I bought — yes, bought — two flimsy pirate costumes and considered it $4,678.00 well spent. This isn't a good picture of Charlie, but it's the only one I have of the two of them in which he did not appear to be menacing his brother with his gimcrack plastic flintlock:
...I said appear. Sure, he might have been about to cold-cock Ben with the stock of the thing, but actually he probably wasn't. At first glance Ben might look a little Adam Ant, but I see a baby Jean Lafitte. Would you try to steal his candy?
I bought the costumes instead of making them because I had some travel planned and knew I wouldn't have time. Charlie and I went to Julia's to surprise her for her birthday. Because apparently I can't travel without the whole trip turning into some unholy mashup of The Amazing Race and The Most Dangerous Game, the six hours of padding I'd built into our schedule shrank, thanks to a Philadelphia snowstorm, to an uncomfortable 20 minutes, and we arrived at the restaurant with just enough time to knock back a glass of wine (me) and three cupcakes (Charlie) before Julia arrived.
I wish I could show you how she looked as she scanned the room to see who was there, and then noticed me. Watching the ...Wait, what? change into recognition was — well, it was just wonderful, and it made it worth the trouble we'd taken to be there, a thousand times over.
Okay, maybe nine hundred times over, because afterwards, as soon as I started driving — Charlie had gone with the babysitter earlier, and Julia rode with me — she started to look a little peaked. Later I would tell anyone who would listen, "I knew she wasn't drunk-sick, because she didn't have that much," not realizing quite how creepy that made me sound, as if I'd been counting from across the room. (I was much too busy making an ass of myself at my end of the table, where I complained loudly about the amount of friśée in the salad — "Frisée is nothing but bitter, curly bullshit" — without knowing that the restaurant was owned by a guest's parents. The moral is, never complain about anything, ever. Or, from the other end, have friends with better manners, because, damn, I am still embarrassed.)
Julia tried to make conversation, but we both gave it up rather quickly. I thought she must be carsick, an impression that was bolstered by her rolling down the window and tilting her head out like a coonhound, and as she barrelled out of the car and sprinted straight for her room, I assumed she'd be fine the next morning. She wasn't. All night Saturday and all day Sunday she was ill, and Edward along with her. She made a few heroic attempts to join the rest of us, but it never lasted long; no sooner would she settle on the couch — draped for vomitproofing with a quilt I made — than she was making a break for the easy-mop bathroom tile, or Edward was.
I talked with Steve and Julia's mother and brother; I admired Caroline; I thought appreciative thoughts about Patrick, who was entertaining Charlie handsomely. I folded some laundry. I washed some dishes. And I was grateful. No, I didn't actually get to see my friend, but I have her. I have a life that let me drop everything to go spend time with her, or at least her washing machine. It wasn't the weekend I'd hoped for — especially not at 4 AM Monday, leaving for the airport, searching for the rental car keys in the gravel of her driveway, thinking Shit shit SHIT, did I lock them in the trunk? — but I am glad I went, just for the look on her face.
So that was just Charlie and me; Ben stayed at home, and a very good thing that was. The week before, see, we'd gone to my mother's. This is a feat that can be accomplished in no fewer than three flights. Our closest airport is small, and so is the one on my mother's end, so you leave early, carefully plan your connections, and pray. (There are no atheists in the Atlanta airport. Satanists, perhaps.)
The trip down there is mercifully a blur now. I thought at the time about writing about it, but I knew the resulting screed would be incomprehensible: Noose-Knife-Angry Eye-Rearing Cobra-Chupacabra degenerating into Spittle Fleck-Tic-Tic-Seizure. I will just say that contrary to the plan, which had us arriving at my mother's at a very civilized 1 PM, our day — our first day— began at 4 AM and reached its nadir, though by no means its end, at midnight with me weeping in the lobby of the Dallas airport Grand Hyatt. (Its end didn't come until an hour later, after we'd called a taxi, gone to another hotel, checked in, undressed, and gotten into bed, when I yelled at Charlie in the loudest, most furious whisper I could muster, "STOP TALKING AND GO TO SLEEP. NOT ONE MORE WORD. NOT ONE.")
But that was just day one. The next morning began with Ben losing his mind in the hotel corridor at 6 AM because I had thoughtlessly pressed the elevator button instead of asking him to do it. Screaming. Thrashing. Throwing himself on the floor. So I did the sensible thing and gathered him up in my arms, leaving Charlie, six years old, to drag the suitcase and the car seat into the elevator. That all worked about as well as you'd think, plus I fell. On the marble floor. While holding my three-year-old child.
I...am remembering why I didn't think it was a good idea to talk about this. I'm not coming off so well.
Anyway, we eventually did arrive at my mother's, at a completely different airport than originally planned and with a stack of, no lie, two dozen different boarding passes — delayed missed cancelled rerouted cursed plaguey Noose-Noose-Noose — and had a wonderful time. Four generations carved pumpkins together, and my kids wore shorts in October.
The trip back — oh, God, the trip back — took four airplanes and a Xanax. Ben. Lovely, lovely Ben. As Sideways Guy in Tennis Skirt and Snake Hat is my witness, I am never again taking him any farther than the grocery store downtown, and only then if I can't find a sitter. Oh, I don't blame him personally; he was exhausted and anxious and three, and he had every reason to be. He had every right to be. But that didn't make it any easier when he decided to lie down keening in the middle of the line for Delta Airways' Special Services. (Translation: Please Stand By for a Full-Price, No-Frills Fucking Oh Wait Did We Accidentally Say Please?) Or when he went boneless during the mad sprint from Terminal A to Terminal Ω via a thundering corridor of taxis that did not stop for pedestrians, no, not even a little, and I am not exaggerating. Newark, or Laguardia, or JFK — I don't even remember which airport it was. I don't even know what city it was, actually. Does Mordor have an airport?
Nor did it make it easier during, oh, many of our 38 flights when he decided to kick the seat back in front of him. I don't mean he idly bumped it with the toe of his shoe; I mean he went totally Riverdance, usually because I'd made him stop slamming around the tray table or muscled him back into his seat belt for landing or asked him to put out his cigarette or something — legitimate airplane business, non-negotiable stuff. He was mad as hell, and some stranger's lower back and kidneys were gonna pay. Or, I was going to hold his legs to prevent it, which is pretty much what I did.
This may be the first trip when I've had to deal with that kind of onboard outburst. So far as I remember, my trips with Charlie, even during his most challenging phases, were always uneventful in that regard. I was less embarrassed than I'd have expected; I didn't care for the looks I was given, but my conscience was pretty clear. Seemed like an easy choice: Either you let the kid hammer the seat for everything he's worth, or you keep him from doing it and treat the entire plane to his enraged screaming. You consign a single passenger to extreme unpleasantness, teaching the kid nothing in the process, or you subject the entire plane to it, but you also impart a lesson. (You hope. Oh, God, you hope.)
To me, there wasn't even a choice. Still, I'm honestly curious about what you might have done in a similar situation. I've read enough online articles about travel to know that about 75% of the American childrephobic public would answer, "Jettison both parent and child after setting them on fire," but F-word that. Excuse me, Ankh-Ankh-Dung Beetle that. I don't care about them. I want to know what my fellow parents and "When I'm a parent"s think.
And I want to know how your Halloween was, and what you do about kids swearing, and the things you pick out of a salad, and, oh, you know, just everything. I've started a new job that's taking a lot of my time, so I'm around even less than before, but I miss you. And I Heart-Tear-Harmless Garter Snake you, and that's the fucking truth.
Hail fellow well met
Hey, have I told you I'm diabetic? I forget. I'd look it up but I'm too spacey from snorting that 2-pound bag of brown sugar to be able to use the search function. (I kid, I kid. They only sell Billington's in 1-pound bags, and I take it intravenously.)
I had gestational diabetes with Charlie; after that pregnancy I was classified as prediabetic. When I was pregnant with Ben, I was once again gesticulationally diabeticalistic melliteriffic — medical term, look it up; although in most women with GDM the condition resolves as soon as the placenta hits the bucket, I wasn't so lucky.
It's been okay. It's been controlled by diet, which is to say that I no longer eat my mashed potato sandwiches on white bread but on healthful whole-grain donuts, and I've discovered that you can hardly tell the difference between premium full-fat ice cream and frozen Miracle Whip Light, even if you've swapped your old favorite sugary hot fudge sauce for an artifically sweetened beef gravy.
But type 2 diabetes is by its nature a progressive disease, and mine has gotten worse. (My A1C is now 8.1, for those of you playing the home game. And as long as we're getting personal, I make $750,000 a year blogging, my cup size is Ω, and I watch ANTM. Now guess which of those is true.)
My doctor has put me on metformin to lower my blood glucose. All I know about it at this point is what Google told me yesterday, which was Blue Ball Blockhead Gumby Yellow Dinosaur Guy, and what was on the package insert that came with the meds, which I confess I didn't read thoroughly because none of the words bounced or turned into Pokey when I moved my pointer finger over them.
Now, I know many of you have been on metformin for PCOS. In fact, lo, these many years ago when we were still trying to conceive, I read posts by fellow infertiles about "the met"'s side effects that scared the bejesus out of me and made me think, "Wow, yeah! Hey! Good thing that'll never be me!" And then I got distracted by a strange jingling, which in retrospect was probably the sound of Fate buckling on its strap-on, and forgot all about it until now.
So I humbly ask, please, what your experience with metformin has been — side effects, adjustments you had to make, things that make the experience better or ohGodpleasehelpme worse. I'd click around more on the big impersonal web, but your stories are always more helpful, and Google might make me watch Davey and Goliath, or possibly even Jot.
Posted by Julie at 11:00 AM | Comments (81)
Have I shown you Charlie's office? There's a nook in his room where we've placed a desk, a chair, and a set of drawers for his supplies. It was he who called it an office; I'd have been inclined to call it The Place Where Seriously Kid You Have Got to Stop Uncoiling Paper Clips and Using the Wire to Make Brother Traps. It's where...he does stuff like that. And a lot of cutting and gluing. He comes up with these excellent contraptions, these highly sophisticated papercrafts that leave us laughing, incredulous, at his inventiveness.
Aaaaand then he makes stuff like this:
What unnerves me here is that the tag came unmoored from the actual kit, whatever that might be, which I have yet to find.
I looked. And in cleaning up his office I found some great stuff. Here, do you need one of these?
And then there was this plan...
I also found proof of something I hadn't known: temporary tattoos can be removed with Scotch tape.
And also proof that if you ever come to my house, you should...just...you know, be careful:
And finally, proof that my sense of humor is no more highly developed than my six-year-old's proofreading skills:
I was telling my friend T. about the things I've found. "Charlie," she said, "is so fantastically weird."
And she's right. He is fantastic, and he is weird, and it's the kind of weird I dig.
A certain age
This morning, with both kids safely ushered to their respective destinations — Ben to be raised by strangers, Charlie to work the coal seam — I sat down at long last to square off against last week's New York Magazine article, "Parents of a Certain Age." I made a fresh cup of coffee, situated myself comfortably at my desk, and pleasurably readied my dudgeon for liftoff.
But I just couldn't get it up.
Lisa Miller, herself a first-time mother at 40, has written what I think is a really thoughtful, balanced article about becoming a parent later — no, really: laaaaater — in life. She looked at what it means socially to decide on motherhood past age 45. Part of it sounded eerily familiar:
A new child may be a blessed event, but when a 50-year-old decides to strap on the Baby Björn, that choice is seen as selfish.
You've heard this, right? Every person who's pursued unorthodox reproduction has. ART of any stripe? You're selfish for not adopting a child who needs a home. IVF with your own gametes? You're selfish for wanting a designercybertechnominigeneticlone. Donor gametes? You're selfish for exploiting the donor and for depriving your children of various inalienable ineffables. Surrogacy? Oh, lady.
It strikes me as misguided to the point of hilarity to condemn any particular decision about having children as selfish — not because I think of choosing to become a parent as inherently selfless, but because I think it's not. Nobody has children to...what? enrich the existence of all mankind? ("Hayden Messiah, you drop that dead squirrel now. You can resurrect things after your violin lesson.") We do it for love, for comfort, for experience, for belonging, for innumerable reasons that have nothing to do with what's best for anyone else, but with what would make us happy.
When we have kids intentionally, we do it because we get something out of it, because we want to, because we selfishly want, and the manner of conception doesn't change that fact. So, sure, I'll buy the argument that older parents are selfish. But no more selfish than the pregnant 17-year-old who wants someone to love her, or the 40-year-old single woman who goes it alone because she's scared she'll miss her chance. And no more selfish, in fact, than the financially responsible, perfectly fertile 30-year-old, in a stable job and married for five years, who worries that if she doesn't have kids, she'll feel incomplete. (We don't question her much, do we?) You can argue with these hypothetical people's decisions on other grounds if you want, but, sorry, selfishness doesn't fly. In that way, we all suck alike.
And whatever else you think about parenthood late in life — Miller's article covers the gamut, from perceptions about physical limitations to concerns about dying while the kids are still young — you'd have to work hard to find anyone who goes about parenthood more intentionally than women after age 45. Miller writes:
It is nearly impossible to have a baby at 50 by accident. "Oops" does not happen; that momentary abandonment of good sense or caution will almost never result in a pregnancy. No matter how a child is procured, whether through technology or adoption, her 50-year-old parents have likely gone through some kind of hell — paperwork, blood tests, questionnaires, waiting, visa applications, mood swings, marital discord, and recalibration of expectations — to have her. These are the most wanted of children.
While I might disagree with Miller's characterization as "the most wanted," I can't dispute the general gist. Now, I don't think wanting children a lot necessarily makes anyone a better parent. (I wish it did. I wish it made me a better parent than I am some days.) But it does signal a sincere commitment, and implies unusually thorough consideration. That kind of tenacity should incline us, I think, to respect the decision and give the parents the benefit of the doubt — to trust them to know their own capacity and to make good decisions, just as we do for people in the "right" age bracket who have kids for the "right" reasons under the "right" circumstances.
Which is where I was surprised to find myself after reading Miller's piece. It's not that I have any particular bias against older parents; in fact, I mostly — selfishly! — don't care. But I expected it to be full of the standard mass-media-meets-fertility crap, crawling with people I couldn't easily identify with. And sure, okay, there was a little of that. (If the first few lines don't creep you out — well, recalibrate your creepometer.) And the question of privilege is enormous and problematic, which Miller fairly acknowledges but doesn't explore in depth. Still, I thought after reading the article I would be incensed, and instead I was sympathetic.
I mean, aren't we all similarly damned, when we have children at the wrong time or in a complicated way or beyond the bounds of natural fertility, in some way other than how it was meant to be? (I was going to clap scare quotes around those terms, but once I started doing it I couldn't see where to stop.)
I linked to this on Facebook and Twitter, and I loved it enough to continue to thrust it forcefully at you here. It's Paul Ford's beautiful essay on undergoing IVF: "Over a beer an expectant father—another expectant father—gives me the news, tells me that his wife will soon have her second or third. Am I happy for him? What else can I be? Once again I put out my hand, close my eyes, and wish them joy."
You don't take a photo; you make it
It's school picture day today! And I remembered! Not because of any responsible parental behavior on my part! But because the universe reminded me! By sending Charlie home from school yesterday with a gigantic shiner!
He was pretty upset, I have to say: "I don't want my picture to look bad!" I told him my philosophy about photos, which is that they should capture us as we really are, to give us a way to remember our lives the way we actually lived them — that it was nice to try to look our best, but it was more important to be real.
Which sounded pretty good until I logged on last night to the picture company's web site to order.
Did you know? This is done online now, just like all the best parts of life: keeping in touch with friends, shopping for expensive unnecessaries, cheating at Scrabble, and organ transplants. You go to the company's site and you get to choose your package, including background, titles, even retouching if you want it.
Used to be that this was the best we could hope for:
Which is nice enough, I suppose. But now you can jazz it up with your kid's name, or the year, or, hey, why not the message of your choice?
Or you could get an "Art" background. And I use the scare quotes advisedly.
I was sort of looking for something a little more like real art...
...so I dropped that idea and moved on to "School Themes." Chalkboards and bookshelves figured prominently, as did OH MY GOD CHILDREN GET OUT OF THE WAAAAAY THE DRIVER IS HAVING A STROKE!
A little unsettling, if you ask me. Yes, a little unsettling.
Next I checked out "Nature Themes." Yawn.
I would have preferred something that suggested the thrilling rush of an active afternoon spent outdoors...
Or maybe something featuring a nice cuddly animal.
But no dice. By now I must say I was feeling a bit discouraged. Luckily the "Spiritual Themes" were there to buoy me in my time of crisis.
Alas, our family's faith was sadly unrepresented.
None of the options thrilled me, but I was determined to find one that worked. Or three! Remember those composites that had a person in the foreground, and then a semi-transparent floating head in the background? These? Or the ones where a perfectly nice couple has been unceremoniously stuffed into a brandy snifter?
I found that the genre has been...updated.
I finally just decided to go with the classic. No words, no effects, just the same blue background from every school picture I ever took in my life:
(1985, my friends. 1985.)
In fact, despite Charlie's black eye, I didn't even ask for the retouching. In fact, I was half-tempted to ask them to make it look worse. Maybe add in a split lip. Paste in an exposed fang. Use the Crazy Eyes filter. And add big type reading, "BADASS."
Instead I settled this morning for a damp cloth, a quick comb, and a kiss as he left the house. This is our life as we live it, right? And maybe the photographer will notice and fix Charlie's shirt, which is, goddamn it, on backwards.
UPDATE: Haaaa, I thought it would be obvious, but I see it is all too believable: none of the photos above are actually from this morning's session. I used Photoshop plus a quick mug shot after breakfast to serve as a representation — I regret to assure you, an accurate one — of the choices the portrait company offered.
Sorry for the confusion. Carry on. And go like this. No, again. No, you — you'll probably need a mirror. There's a little...something on your...no, you can't reach it with your tongue. Just make sure you get it off before your turn at the camera.
The rule of three
Oh, age three! You lovable rapscallion! You adorable imp. You sly little devil, you. You Hello, Kitty!-style Beelzebub. You sparkle-eyed Fisher Price My First Enema Bag™! You fresh-faced son of a two-bit whore. You—
Wait, I should clarify here. I'm not saying any of you parents of three-year-olds are two-bit whores. (That's just me, and I'm told [buffing nails] I underprice.) And our children are lovely people, delightful people, when three doesn't have them in a half-nelson, choking the charming little bejesus right out of 'em. What I mean is, at our house three has come to roost, and we're ankle-deep in its guano.
It's an exercise in deep discombobulation to be Ben's parent these days. Much of the time he's so lovable that I honestly feel it in my body — a curl of the toes, a wiggle of the fingers as I lunge in to poke him, to make sure he's real. To pick just one example, there's his current obsession with family. I don't mean us, his family, but the abstract idea of it. Everything's part of a family: people, animals, inanimate objects. If he decides to pretend to be a farmer, then he is the Dad farmer and one of us adults gets to be the baby farmer. (Make up your own joke.) Any variation in size results in the assignment of a family role, unto the generations; we have not just Mama, Dad, and Baby Elmo, but enough dupes in graduated sizes to go back to Piltdown. He makes these — I don't know, adorable? unnerving? undoraving! — tableaux of families:
A family of Batmans. …-Men. …-Mobiles. (No one's told the putative father Mama got it on with a Chevy.)
Potatoes…I…guess. Yes, I know one's an onion. I'm assuming they adopted.
Rabbits. From left: Mother, baby, father, brother. ("The brother is big! He wears underpants!") How do I know the white hand puppet is the mother? Simple:
[Running feet, eager voice.] "The mama bunny has a pouch! Yook! She can carry her baby!"
Whoops. Sorry. Next time I'll warn you: bunny junk. NSFW.
So a lot of the time he's doing endearing stuff like that. But he's never just okay, never neutral or pretty good. The rest of the time he's nigh on intolerable. He likes things the way he likes them, our Ben, with a fervor that borders on compulsion.
You know. "Borders on."
When things don't go the way he wants them to, he loses his potato-loving mind. If he has the idea that he's going to set the table, for example, and instead we have Charlie do it because Ben couldn't be persuaded to drop the goddamn tuber, first he does this flamenco of outrage, beating his heels so fast that it makes his screams of protest judder. "I wanted to do it! I wanted to do it!" But, Ben, we remind him reasonably, we asked you to do it twice, and you didn't come when we said to, so you missed your chance to help. And then he wigs out a little more, unable to believe how much natural consequences suck, and then tries to gather the cutlery, return it all to the drawer, and, I don't know, spool back time so that events unfurl correctly. Rewind and redo. It's like Run Lola Run in little orange Crocs. With dinner knives. On angel dust.
These meltdowns are just that. You can watch his circuits just fry as he tries to make sense of what has happened, why he doesn't like it, and how he could possibly change it. We try to forestall them by involving him as much as we can in decisions and choices and plans, but, Jesus, sooner or later you just want the table set, and the cost is a one-kid supernova.
And I realize by now I've characterized my kid as a catastrophic explosion, a drug-addled knife-thrower, and a furious little Time Lord who stole the keys to the TARDIS. (Also, in case you'd forgotten how appalling I can be, an enema bag figured, way back there in paragraph one.) But there are also the rabbits, the Batman…s…es, the things that are sort of potatoes. And because three is so mercurial, you have no idea from moment to moment which one you're going to get.
I was talking on Twitter the other day with Alexa about this series of books — I've mentioned them here before — put out by the Gesell Institute. Although I actually like the books quite a bit, finding their information on developmental phases to be reassuringly bang-on, they're amusing, too. I'm not going to steal a march on Alexa, who may write about this herself, by quoting extensively; I'll just say that the authors' suggestion to encourage a three-year-old to give up his blankie by cutting it in half strikes me as rather, you know, old school. Good work developing that independence, kid! I'll just reward you with a few snips here…a trimmed thread there…There! I have OBLITERATED ALL YOU HOLD DEAR.
Anyway, the three-year-old volume is called Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy. And although the title makes me snort, I have to say it's fitting. Because these days with Ben we just never know which of those we'll get. Friend or enemy. Batman or Satan. Lovable bunny or unauthorized upskirt. (Look, I lost control of these metaphors about 600 words ago.)
I remember with Charlie three was much harder than two ever dared to be. It's shaping up the same with Ben. Charlie is living proof, though, that somehow we made it through. And so we will with our current friend and enemy, Ben. Enema-frienema-Benemy. May Batman protect us all.
Sunday papers (don't ask no questions)
Charlie loves the Mini Page. Did you have that when you were a kid, the little half-page in the Sunday paper with news stories simplified for kids, a couple of puzzles, and line drawings of this little Raggedy Ann-like girl in, like, a Tutankhamen headdress or a football helmet or a rubber mask of Richard Nixon, depending on what was happening in the world? My local paper didn't carry it, but my grandparents' did, and Grandma would clip it and send it to me. I loved the Mini Page. (I did not love the thank-you notes my mother made me write and send. But I now love that she did.)
I was excited to see that our paper here carries it, along with the dumbest crossword in the world — "1. Da Vinci's Mona ____. 2. Da Vinci's ____ Lisa." — and I've been passing it along to Charlie each week, feeling pleasantly wholesome and nostalgic, along with the color comics. (He sometimes gets the weekday strips, too, but honestly that depends on how hateful Dear Abby is being that day in the inches right next to Garfield.)
Last weekend, though, I happened to glance at the Mini Page before I gave it to Charlie. It was about September 11, and although it was tastefully done...
We know these hijackers were angry at the United States and our way of life. But even adults don’t really understand why they did this horrible act.
...I decided not to pass it along. So far as I knew, he was unaware that something very bad had once happened, and I saw no reason to tell him. I briefly wondered if that qualified as shameful not-"Never Forget"-ting, but decided it must not. I remember it fine, God knows, and although I know his innocence won't last forever, why would I hasten its end?
So I memory holed the Mini Page. Comforted by the note that said, "Next week, The Mini Page is about school lunches," presumably with Raggedy Ann wearing a hair net and dishing out deep-fried Fanta, I thought that would be the end of it.
This week I handed over the Mini Page with confidence. ...Along with the color comics. ...Which were all about September 11.
I didn't notice, of course, until Charlie complained, "These aren't even funny." And while I privately feel they never are, he usually finds even the Family Circus hilarious. (I disagree. Screw you, Not Me.) But yesterday was different. They weren't supposed to be funny. (Though if you can look at some of them without laughing incredulously, you're a better person than I am, because a few are just downright weird.)
Paul brokered that conversation, explaining it all simply, just as the Mini Page had, and discreetly skirting some of the horror of it, eliding the fact that so many people died. (Overhearing this, I supplemented Charlie's burgeoning understanding by hollering down the stairwell, "And a lot of people died, so we're sad." I think I heard Paul whisper, "Just ignore your mother," before resuming his more nuanced approach. Good one, Julie. A+ smiley-face in super-mindful parenting.)
I draw a lot of lessons from this little incident. First, trust the Mini Page, and let mass media guide your child whenver you feel uncertain. Second, leave all difficult conversations to your better-spoken spouse. Third, Dagwood Bumstead has feelings, too, for other things than sandwiches, and despite the fact that we've always known Beetle Bailey as a dependable, tough-as-nails grunt who could carry our country through its darkest days with resoluteness and aplomb, well, even heroes weep. And Mark Trail can speak without opening his mouth, and thank God Cathy is dead so I don't have to see her cry, too.
Charlie has a new hobby. "What's your new hobby?" I asked him, ready to help or rustle up supplies. I'm always eager to support his interests, as long as they don't involve explosives, and sometimes even then:
He was kind enough to make me an apprentice, with my own ID card and everything.
I think I am quite photogenic.
My soul-sucking tally still stands at zero (unless you count Paul's, which was really just beginner's luck). I'm hoping Charlie will soon have time to train me properly, but first he's working with a new kid at school. "I really think," he said optimistically, "this guy is good soul-sucker material."
And that is how you make new friends when you are my son Charlie.
Yesterday we went for a hike in the woods. Long story short, Ben and his friend A. ran out in front of the group. A.'s mother and I were walking fast to catch up with them, lest they fall into quicksand or slip on some mossy rocks or accidentally be exposed to a drum circle or something. I was looking at Ben and not at the ground, and I tripped on a root. I wrenched my ankle badly. It didn't hurt much at the time, but later, halfway through the grocery store, it hurt so much that I practically had to call a tow truck to get that godforsaken firetruck grocery cart back to the front of the store. (The whole time Ben was squawking indignantly from the cab of the truck, "But we need to stop for gas!" Which is absurd. This is Vermont. The grocery cart was a hybrid.)
So my ankle is wrapped and elevated, and I stump around the house on crutches. Charlie made me a cast patched together from neon-pink index cards: "It utilizes CrossWeave Technology," he assured me, securing it with tape and staples. (The ™ was unsaid but understood.) And Ben? Ben gave my ankle a kiss and two careful hugs, then vaulted over me on the sofa whooping, "Leeeeeap!" And when I then yelped in pain, he went to get a monkey Band-Aid, introduced himself as the doctor, and read me five of his books.
Which was all well and good but I can't wait until three-year-olds can legally prescribe morphine.
How was your weekend? Good, I hope, despite that little suckup, Jeffy.