Thursday, July 31, 2008

Panic at the Library!

Do you know what's the worst?

When your husband has to work late and so you decide to go and do something fun with the kids, and so you decide to take them to the library, and it turns out to be a total fiasco?  It even starts out bad with them whining they don't want to go one minute and then the next minute they do?  But then they get in the car and because it was 100 degrees today the seatbelts are like molten hot metal and so they start screaming "It's hooooooooooooooooooooooooot!" and "Mommy!  Turn on the air conditioning NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOW!"  And you want to say something stupid like, "How do you think kids in the Sudan feel, you little brats?" but you don't, you just bite your tongue and get in the car and get going?

And then you get to the library and see a friend in the lobby and stop to say hi and meanwhile your two kids have shot like darts into the library and are running and screaming around like frat boys at a Girls Gone Wild convention, and you haven't been there two minutes and already the librarian is giving you that look like, "What the fuck, lady?  Can't you control your kids?  Some people" and you're carrying three large bags with all the books you have to return and trying to get your kids to help you put them in the slot and then all of a sudden your toddler has to pee?

So you haul all the books and the two knock-kneed, tripping kids into the bathroom and the toddler starts screaming, "NOPOTTYNOPOTTYNOPOTTY" like you're beating her about the head with a trash can lid and then your preschooler, always curious, turns on the electric hand dryer and your toddler absolutely wigs out because in the past three weeks she has developed an obsessive fear of fans and that is most definitely a fan?

Then you finally get all the kids and all the books out of the bathroom and get the old books returned and go to get new ones and your preschooler knocks over some little kid because she wants the Ruby doll she's playing with and your toddler owns nothing even remotely close to an inside voice and the librarian is looking at you again like "You and your kids are what's wrong with this country, lady, ever heard of a little thing called discipline?" and you are like shrugging your shoulders and grinning sheepishly instead of whispering to her to fuck off, which is what you'd really like to say?

And then because of budget cuts and our society's love affair with the mechanized (fuck you, too, Taylor, and up your ass, Ford), the librarians don't actually check books out for you anymore you have to do it yourself and the machine is malfunctioning and won't read board books and your toddler has wandered behind the circulation desk and your preschooler is making snow angels on the carpet (which I guess would be carpet angels) and some guy is yelling loudly that he wants a new library card but can't make himselaf heard over the din of your ill-behaved children?

And all three of you leave crying? 

That's the worst.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Yang It

A friend watched the kids for a day recently so that Eric and I could go to a music festival in town.  We got home late so she ended up staying overnight.  She was cheerful about it, and the kids love her, but before she left, she said (I paraphrase), "Everytime I babysit, it makes me want to have kids less and less."

I get where she was coming from.  It's pretty much exhausting to watch two kids who aren't your own.  You're a novelty to them, so they're extra demanding.  Plus, you want to be entertaining, so you're less likely to pull the "You kids go play by yourself for a while so mommy can look at this J. Crew catalog" line, the way I can and frequently do.  And, as another friend puts it (I paraphrase), "I don't really like kids.  Or dogs.  Unless they're my own."

But here's the thing.  When they are your kids, there's a lot to be gained from it.  In addition to love and entertainment and fullness, you get discipline.  The discipline thing is the main thing, really, because you can get love, entertainment, and fullness without kids, though they are of a different sort.  Nothing disciplines you, however, like having children.  Especially when you can't run away from them, must be nice to them, must try to raise them to be decent, even interesting, human beings, when you yourself are feeling like a fussy child.

Take tonight, for example.  The kids and Eric get home at 4:30, and he starts making dinner.  It's our day to take lunch to Nolie's class of toddlers tomorrow, Addie's lunch has to be made, all the crap from school has to get put away, and I have a killer stomachache.  The kitchen's a mess.  Plus not a very productive day in front of the computer working on a new paper.  The kids alternate screaming like screaming screamers with sweetly hugging and kissing each other until one of them starts screaming again.  Plus I have PMS and would really just like to curl up and watch reruns of Project Runway, or practice playing some new songs on the piano, or work on a stitching project I've just begun. 

Anything but be with my children, who demand my attention.

Then I realize, though, that my problem (aside from the hormonal crankiness and sore tummy) is precisely that I am somewhere else, have not given myself over to the situation.  Lying there on the couch wishing I was someone else somewhere else was a sure ticket to misery in that moment.

So the discipline was to get my ass up off the couch, do some dishes, make the toddlers their lunch, make some tea for me, and sit with the kids and Eric while we all horsed around and raucously played our tambourines and did headstands.  Et, voila!  I was instantly happy.  Because of the discipline of abandoning what I thought I wanted in that moment and just being in that moment.

That is a lesson I don't think I ever would have learned on my own.  Not that people without kids can't--they can.  I just don't think I would have been one of them.  This has expanded my capacity for love, entertainment, and fullness in ways I hadn't imagined before.  This is why, when my best, most beautiful friends tell me they have to do work on themselves before they can even think about children, I tell them don't bother.  You'll have plenty of chances once they get here.  And you probably won't do what you need to do without some sort of kick in the ass.

Kids can be that kick (pain) in the ass.  Because they require discipline.  Love them to death.  Pain in the ass.  But just the kind I needed.  My yin just got yanged.  All I know is the more I babysit, the more I want children.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Goodbye, Impaling Death Stick

So, here's a parenting break-through for you:  being nice to your kids is more effective than being mean to them.  Let me see if I can explain.

Example:  We've had a five-foot bamboo stick in our backyard for a while.  It was staked to a fast-growing tree we bought online, a tulip poplar.  Anyway, Addie took to it immediately, because she's a nature girl and loves sticks and stones and leaves and dirty and all things outside.  She's been racing around the yard with it, causing Eric and I much trepidation.  It's a miracle she hasn't impaled herself on it, and why we let her keep it for so long, I don't know.

We were all hanging out outside tonight after dinner, and Addie comes onto the porch with the bamboo impaling stick and, because she's not terribly spatially aware, managed to jab me in the neck with it, hard.  "Ouch!" I yelled, jumping out of my chair.  "That's it!  No more bamboo death stick!"  And I grabbed it away from her.

Or tried to, at least.  Because she was holding on tight.  I literally could not get it away from her.  "Addie, let go!"  I yelled.  "Addie, let go!" her dad yelled.  It took both of us to pry it away from her and then what was there to do but give her a time out?  I mean, if both of your parents are yelling at you to let go of the damned stick, you damned well better let go.  Right?

Well, not really.  I realized as I was shutting the bedroom door on Addie's crumpled, in-time-out little body that I had been the one who messed up.  I had let her keep the stick in the first place, even though it was all sharp on one end like a gnarled little dead monkey paw.  I had over-reacted when I got stabbed and had grabbed something she valued away from her.  I, in short, had acted like a child.  And then had to punish her when she acted like one in return.  Bad news.

I'm guessing it would have worked much better if I had kneeled down in front of her and explained why we had to get rid of the stick, and since she's a pretty reasonable little kid, it probably would have worked out a lot better than it did when I freaked out.

You know, sometimes I think I've got the parenting thing figured out, and then I realize how much I have to learn.  Man.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Nolie's Awesome

Know how I know?  Because she runs around the house, usually clothed in, oh, say, a pair of Elmo underwear (if we're lucky), screaming, "I AWESOME!  I AWESOME!  I AWESOME!"

Potty training proceeds apace.  She has one or two accidents every day, then every fourth day or so, she has, like, ten accidents all in a row.  And she is definitely not down with pooping on the potty yet, so she's plopping some huge ones into her underwear.  Good news is she doesn't like keeping them on once that happens, which tells us she likes the feeling of being dry.  Bad news is that means you might inadvertently step into a big turd that got dropped on the floor somewhere around the house, unbeknownst to you.  Nothing like a poodicure to make one feel pampered.

But, strangely, I'm not stressing it.  All of that neurotic anxiety from the Addie potty training days seems to be gone.  If I have to pick a turd up off the floor, so be it!  If Nolie wants to pee the tiniest little mililiter of pee, and then say, "All done!" and then five minutes later we have to go through the whole rigamarole of panties, wiping, flushing, washing hands, turning the light off, shutting the door, and then five minutes later releasing another little nanomolecule of pee, great!  I'm cool.  I'm riding the potty training wave, man.  Mostly I'm just impressed with how consistent she is, overall. 

We have had one unfortunate incident, though.  Because our children are potentially the pickiest eaters on the planet, if ever we're brave enough to take them out to eat, we tend to go to Chili's.  Now, I am not a Chili's fan--except for the chips and salsa, which I would eat until Maury Povich had to come and cut me out of the house--but they serve Kraft Mac n Cheese and pasta w/red sauce, which our children will actually eat without complaining.  They don't have many vegetarian options for me, which is a bummer, but at least we can sit and eat a meal out, as a family, in relative peace. 

Except for last Friday, which was like the perfect storm of unfortunate restaurant experiences.  First, I took Nolie to the potty right off the bat, hoping to avoid an accident in the booth. 

Have you seen that horror movie Dark Water?  Here's an image: 

This is sort of what Nolie looked like after the toilet at Chili's basically threw up black water all over the both of us.  I, being the nelly little pansy I am, screamed when this happened, which you're not supposed to do as, you know, the grown-up, and Nolie, covered in sewage backwash, took my cue and panicked.  I was sure she would never sit on a toilet again.

But we got her dried off and calmed down, and the manager offered to comp the kids' meals, so we stayed.  Unfortunately, we soon discovered that Chili's no longer carries marinara (why, for the love of God?!?) and so Addie had to eat (the torture!  The cruel punishment) PIZZA!  Lawd a mighty, Miss Addie, how will you ever survive?  And then when the kids' food did come, it was cold.  Refrigerator cold.  Like some addle-brained cook back there just pulled it out of the freezer and was like, oh, they're toddlers, they won't notice we didn't cook their food. 

The manager then personally brought us new kid food, warm this time, and was kind enough to comp us four kid meals on the check.  Like this would make us feel better?  We didn't order four kids meals, mother fucker!  We ordered two!  You just messed up on the first round!  So hell, yes, you're "comping" that!  Take your cold pizza and your vomiting toilet and shove them up your ass!  We're going to Appleby's!

At least, that's what I felt like saying.  Mostly, I just paid the check and left.  Cuz that's just the sort of badass I am.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Writing My Way Out

So, I'm trying this new thing with my writing.  I think I've mentioned that I'm terrified, blocked, horribly pained when it comes to academic writing.  I produce the most convoluted, smarmy sentences you've ever seen.  I have anxiety about it, and about revision, and about rejection.  I become someone I do not recognize on the page.

I've used my best skills to tackle the problem.  I've prayed and written visioning statements.  I've asked friends for advice.  I've gotten more comfortable at shopping my work around with friends and colleagues, and at being open to criticism.  I've meditated.  I've visualized the block as a hard nut in my chest, which is where the anxiety locates, dissolving into millions of pieces of light.  I've affirmed that I am a conduit for creativity.

My new age hocus pocus is failing me.  The problem is resisting treatment.

As a last ditch effort--one step shy of abandoning my career and running away to Alaska--I picked up a book by the composition guru Peter Elbow.  He's a guy who flunked out of graduate school at one point because, like me, he couldn't write a coherent academic sentence.  Everything he wrote was circuitous and belabored. 

So he took some time to figure out why he was struggling so much, and solving that problem became his life's work. Now he is a beloved and respected writing maven.  I've had one of his earlier books, Writing with Power, on my to-read shelf for years now.  I first picked it up because I thought it would help me be a better teacher.  Of writing.  Little did I know I would be reading it years later because my own writing was so miserable.

Yeah, I hear you saying, I like your blog, you write fine, you teach writing, you're too hard on yourself, what the hell did you expect, all that jazz.  But I will reiterate:  this academic writing stuff is hard for me.  Like, bloodletting hard.  Like, Everest hard.  I just can't figure out why.

No more figuring, then.  I'm just going to try something new.  I'm putting on the Peter Elbow patch and letting it course through my veins.  I'm smoking the Peter Elbow crack.  I'm diving head first into the Peter Elbow pool of writing instructions.  Cowabunga.

A few observations as I begin.

First, I just have underestimated what a process it is.  I was always the kind of student who just felt my way through things.  I've had very little writing instruction myself, and through a series of lucky encounters just fell into being a writing teacher (irony of all ironies).  Being the dutiful writing teacher that I am, I teach the importance of the writing process.  Dirty little secret:  I hadn't treated it much as a process myself.  As a writer.  So when I'm faced with revision and rejection it freaks me out.  And yes, I plan to incorporate my own lame story into my teaching from now on, assuming this all works out.

Second, Elbow recommends lots and lots of freewriting.  Write tons and tons without revising or editing, he says.  Then put down your creativity pencil and pick up your analytic red pen.  Figure out the best parts of your freewriting--there will be some in there--and begin to shape them.  But don't try to be creative and analytical at the same time.  It just won't work.  This is also something I thought I had "taught" my students. 

Do as I say, students, not as a I do.  Because I almost never turn the editor off.  And especially not with academic writing, where I'm always fretting about audience, purpose, format, prose, punctuation.  What ends up happening, then, is I spend many painstaking hours building what I think are perfect sentences and paragraphs, and when they end up sucking, I'm shocked and dismayed and feel a failure.  Better to produce what Annie Lamott calls some "shitty first drafts," and then go back and just comb through the shit for the pearls. 

I hope this works.  I'm now officially on the Elbow writing diet plan.  I plan to gain many pounds of freewriting in the coming weeks as I work on a paper on communicating climate change.  I'm scheduling in freewriting.  I'm scheduling in research.  I'm scheduling in revision.  As separate processes. 

I'll let you know how it goes.  In the meanwhile, you're stuck with the single process on this blog.  Love it or leave it.

Monday, July 14, 2008

If You're Not Appalled, You Haven't Been Paying Attention

I received this picture in an email from home when I was in Idaho visiting:

The outrage.

If Eric is going to pull this kind of crap every time I go out of town for a few days, it's OVER!  Look at this!  He lets the girls do fun things like play princess dress up?  They got to go to a birthday party?  He's been reading to them, for heaven's sake!?!

Now they are going to expect to be entertained every five minutes.  They're going to expect me to be involved in their lives.  To have fun.

This must stop.  I'm putting my foot down. 

I. Mean. Business.

Speaking of business, it's true!  Nolie is taking the short route to Pottytown!  She is wearing undies during the day, and going pee-pee on the potty.  (Turdville, unfortunately, is still a few miles away.  We have a long layover in Crap-in-the-Pants first).  She's also sleeping in her big girl bed at night. 

What is that I smell?  The sweet whiff of victory?  Toot, toot, a rooty!  But I mustn't get too excited.  It did, after all, take us nearly nine years to potty-train our first born.  It's possible this train we're on will begin heading in reverse at any time.  But I hope not.  The forward motion is nice.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Three Gramps

I was lucky enough to know seven grandparents and one great-grandmother growing up.  Because my parents split up when I was two and remarried quickly after, I got to know all of their parents, except for my stepmom's father.  I spent time periodically with each of my other three grandfathers.  All were as different as you could imagine.

My grandfather Gene--my mother's stepfather--is European.  He scared me when I was little.  His voice was often gruff, and he would tease in an off way, always trying to catch me being stupid or wrong.  He and my grandmother fought terribly--still do--and because she is more dynamic and gregaroius (crazier and more controlling, too), I ended up spending more time with her than with him.  She owned me, in a way, that meant that I couldn't also be with him, or with some of my other grandparents.  As a child, I preferred it that way because I saw him as impenetrable and mean and her as funny and bigger than life.  As I grew up, I began to resent not knowing him more.  Particular evidence:  my grandmother disinvited him to my wedding because she didn't want to travel with him.  I'm not sure if he would have come otherwise.  But I think he would have.

I learned later that he saw his own father blown to smithereens by a Nazi explosion when he was a young boy in Germany.  I know that he was a colonel in the army.  I know that he went to the same college I did.  I know that every once in a while relatives from Germany arrive at my grandparents' house, and that all of a sudden my grandfather becomes animated and happy.  Practically a different person.  I know that my grandfather has been unhappy for a long time.  He has severe diabetes and is on dialysis, and has softened, physically and in personality, over the years.  We have conversations when I go home now, until my grandmother takes over.  Which she still does.  I don't know much more about him, other than that he has a fondness for a certain sort of European leather sandal, and for wearing knee-length plaid shorts, and for wearing no shirt.  He loves ice cream and sweets, and I think sometimes he might hope that eating more of it than he should will kill him.  

My grandfather Homer, my father's father, was...oh, it's hard to express.  Having Homer as a grandfather was like spending your time with Bing Crosby.  He was handsome, charming, dapper, smart, and quick-witted.  He drank before-dinner cocktails in crystal tumblers.  His shirts were always tucked in to his pleated khaki pants.  He knew everyone and was universally well thought of, except perhaps by my grandmother.  They had a long and difficult history, I think, involving dalliances and disagreements.  She's pretty buttoned up, an old-fashioned blue-blood, and he was a bit racier.  Maybe they were ill-matched from the get.  I'll never be sure.  What I am sure of is that it would have been nearly impossible for a young kid to dislike that man.  He was one in a million.

Evidence:  I visited their home one afternoon.  It is on a lake in one of the most beautiful towns in the world, timber-covered mountains rising up out of green pastures, cold blue water, the smell of huckleberries and King's Pines everywhere.  We sat down for lunch and grandpa raised his water glass to me and said, "Enjoy this water, Jennifer!  It's fortified with the soul of your dear aunt!"  The dear aunt was grandma's sister, whose ashes had been spread over the lake.  Grandma, who has severe palsy, dropped her plate onto the table.  I don't think it was the palsy that did it.  Grandpa and I had a hard time stifling our giggles.

Grandpa Homer died three summers ago.  He was emaciated and thin when I last saw him, and cried often.  I found this incredibly unnerving and frightening.  He begged, to nobody, to everybody, "I just want to see my children...."  He had six kids, and I don't know how many grandkids, all of whom attended his funeral after he died of lung cancer (and no, he wasn't a smoker.  He had quit smoking at a young age). 

Grandpa Evans--Dub, as he was called--was my stepdad's father.  Most of my memories of him were when I was a child.  We lived with him and my grandma for a while when I was a kid.  He was the kind of guy who was always in a workshirt, pants, and workboots.  He had been a plumber his whole life.  He had the most incredible head of hair I've ever seen, right up until the last time I saw him a few months ago.  He was huge, with bones like branches, tall and strong.  He didn't say much, but when he did, it was usually funny or provocative, but plain-spoken at the same time.  He liked to shoot at squirrels with a slingshot from his front porch.  He liked to tickle me.  He was kind and unimposing.

He and my grandmother had an incredible garden.  I remember best the Snapdragons and berries.

We grow snapdragons in our garden now, and I pulled one for Addie yesterday, explaining to her how to squeeze it so that it's "mouth" opened and shut.  "My grandfather taught me that," I said, a brief shard of memory flickering.

All this, and I find I don't know much about my grandfather Dub, either.  He died peacefully in his sleep last night, with my grandmother, who has Alzheimer's, by his side.  I'm heading home tonight to hang out with my family, and to hear stories about Dub from when he was younger.  I'll see his body, and go with them to bury him.  I'll grieve with my dad, who bears the imprint of his father, physically and emotionally, and always will, and with my brother, who always found a home at my grandparents' house.

Take a rest,
Take a breath,
While the storm is not overhead.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Tinkle, Tinkle, Little Star

This, my friends, is a picture of a very proud Nolie going pee on the potty (with a few toots thrown in for good measure).  This, my friends, fills me with excitement and dread, in equal measure.

Those of you who've stuck with this blog over time know that, not one year ago, I was going through potty training hell with Nolie's older sister, Addie.  Not one year ago, Addie was peeing her pants every chance she got, soiling those expensive pull-ups every chance she got, and yes, occasionally smearing poo on the walls.  The very thought of it sends chills down my spine.

And so when Nolie began to show interest in the potty this weekend, it was with great reluctance that I pulled out the Dora the Explorer potty seat and step stool.  It was with great reluctance that I broke the seal on the Costco-size box of pull-ups waiting in her closet for this fateful day.  Don't get me wrong:  when that first tinkle-tinkle hit the crystalline, porcelain waters below, I cheered with gusto, praised my Nolie, helped her to wipe and wash her hands and flush.  But when the moment had passed, I held my head in my hands and thought, I'm not ready for this.

I'm not ready for the inches Nolie seems to have sprouted in the last few weeks.

I'm not ready for her burgeoning vocabulary.

I'm not ready for her to begin sleeping in her big-girl bed instead of her crib.

But it's all happening anyway, and it's almost as if I have nothing to do with any of it.  I'm just here providing the tools as they become necessary:  the potty seat, the toddler bed, the longer pants, the words.  Up, up, and away we go.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Yogis Unite

One of my favorite things right now is Zack Kurland's book Morning Yoga Workouts.  You can choose from a bunch of workouts of varying intensities and lengths, which is perfect if you don't have time to squeeze in a full practice but want to stretch or center or whatever.  I do them every night (so much for morning workout).  If it's Eric's turn to put Addie down, I get to do an hour's worth.  If it's my turn, I'll just do twenty minutes.

Addie's been doing yoga with me for a long time.  Well, not "with."  Alongside.  And not really "yoga."  But more like non-stop chatter and fidgeting.  Sometimes I'll abandon my practice and just make up a kid routine that we do together.  But other times, I just let her ramble on beside me while I try to move.  It goes like this.

"Mommy, can I do yoga with you?"

"Mmm-hmmm."  Exhale, inhale, mountain, standing forward bend.

"I'm just going to roll this mat out here right alonside yours and do yoga with you."

"Mmm-hmmm."  Exhale, inhale, upward-facing dog, downward-facing dog.

"Cause I'm really good at yoga.  Except I do kid yoga and you do mommy yoga.  But first I'm just going to roll myself up in my mat like a burrito.  Mommy, can you roll me up like a burrito?  Then I can be all cozy?  And can you get me my babies?  Then we can be all cozy in here together?  And you'll be the grandma bunny, and I'll be the sister bunny, and there will be baby bunnies?  Bor, no!  I'll be the mommy fairy unicorn princess, and you'll be the baby fairy unicorn princess who does yoga, and we will have three sisters?"

"Mommy's doing yoga, Addie.  You'll have to go get your babies by yourself."  Exhale, inhale, lunge, standing forward bend. 

"I guess I don't need my babies.  Now I'm going to do yoga with you.  What's that pose you're doing, mommy?"

"This one's called Warrior, Addie.  See how straight and strong my arms are?"

"I see.  But it doesn't look very hard.  I'm going to do my favorite yoga.  It's hard yoga.  It's called 'Breathe and Calm Down Your Body.'  No, I call it the 'really body calmer.'  See?  All you do is put your foot up like this, and then you can even lick your toes if you want!"

"Addie!  Gross!  We shouldn't put our feet in our mouths!  How did you get your leg up that high?"  Exhale, inhale, crouching mommy, stretching toddler.

"But I can also do this one, mommy!  Look!  I put my head down like this, and stick my leg out and my arms out...oops!  I tooted, mommy!"

"Ew, Addie!  I'm trying to breathe deep!"  Exhale, inhale, giggling mommy, tooting toddler.

"Also, Mommy?  What is that bag on your tummy?"

"What bag?"

"This one--the one on your tummy!"  Grabs mommy's belly roll.

"Oh.  That's my yoga bag, honey.  It helps keep me balanced." 

Exhale, inhale, mommy-gives-up, toddler-wins.

Namaste, Addie.