Monday, November 20, 2006

Ode to Eli

Nearly one year ago, in a perfect birth experience, baby Eli joined our family. The doctor, who had also welcomed Eleanor and Sylvia into the world, gently placed Eli—red, slimy, and scrunched up like a turtle who’d spent too long in its shell—onto my chest. “Welcome, Eli,” I said, “do you recognize my voice? I’m your Mama.” Eleanor was sitting right beside me in the hospital bed, and she joined in: “Hi Eli, I’m Eleanor, your biggest sister. Sylvia is the medium-est, and you are the littlest one in our family.”

Eleven months have passed.

Oh, how I love this baby, whose smile starts in his laughing eyes and ignites his entire being like a Fourth of July Sparkler. Words cannot adequately describe his happy, playful, brighten-up-the-room baby nature. I’ll tell you this without a hint of hyperbole: strangers—not one, but many, many—have literally stopped me on the street, Eli babbling away in the stroller, to tell me he’s the cutest baby they’ve ever seen. I’m not even embarrassed by their gushing. I can’t even feign modesty. I smile, and say happily, “I know! I am constantly amazed by his cuteness! Thank you!”

Each morning when I unzip Eli’s pajama sack—the coziness radiating from his body like the aroma from a cartoon pie—I inhale the sweet scent of baby sleep, and thank God for giving him to our family. Judging from the generosity of his smiles, and his eagerness to please, I think the feeling is mutual. In his best Harpo Marx impersonation, he puts his pacifier in his mouth backward—handle first and plug-side-out—and laughs and laughs at his own joke.

Because Eli is my third baby, I’ve had a lot of breastfeeding practice (by my calculation I’ve racked up 29 months or 52,200 minutes of breastfeeding, and I know that’s a conservative estimate). But it helps that Eli is to breastfeeding as Tiger Woods is to golf: he’s done it well since birth. When he was tiny, he kneaded my chest with his stubby little baby fingers, reminding me of a dream I had when I was pregnant with Eleanor, in which I gave birth to a kitten. (Eleanor displayed modesty in utero not seen since her birth: you’d never know that the 5-year-old-girl who strips down to her underwear at every opportunity was once so shy she wouldn’t reveal her gender during the ultrasound. The Great Unknown of her gender inspired a myriad of crazy gender-guessing dreams, including two where her Private Area was blurred out—as in censored—and one where, after lifting my furry, fang-toothed baby to my breast, thinking, “hmm, something is different about this baby, I realized she was, well, a kitten. “Don’t worry, I’ll still love you and take good care of you,” I remember promising the kitten.)

As Eli grew, and learned about object permanence (“Whoa! Mama still exists, even when I’m not looking at her!”), he took little breaks during nursing—the warm milk running out the side of his mouth as he turned his head upward—to smile at me. “It’s you,” his smile seemed to say, “I knew it was you all along!” Sharing those smiles, communicating “I know you,” and “you are mine,” I bid adieu to the previously uncharted territories of my heart.

These days, as Eli approaches his first birthday, he nurses with one hand tugging my necklace, his fingers worrying the beads like the faithful praying the rosary. Always multitasking, his top leg flops up and down like a happy puppy wagging its tail. He pauses, almost involuntarily, to practice his new clapping skills (“hooray for milk!”), and then nurses again, while his hand explores the contours of my face, charting each bump like a blind-man reading Braille.

I love Eli’s predictability, which rivals Greenwich Mean Time in its consistency. He is tired exactly two hours after he wakes up in the morning, and he hints to me with a vigorous eye-rubbing that he’s ready for nap. Eli wakes up happy, reaching his arms up and rewarding me with smiles and babbling. He buries his head into my shoulder and wriggles his bottom as if trying to dig a snuggle burrow. He compulsively signs “change” when we’re changing his diaper, his chubby little fists sliding back and forth on each other in a half-circular pattern. Each bath-time, Eli puts his face into the water and coughs on it; he just has to be sure of its level. After his final nursing at night, he burps twice. Never once; never thrice. He’s as predictable as the treasury debt, but a whole lot more fun.

Nothing about Eli is ordinary, and his crawl is no exception. Three out of four appendages work cooperatively in a traditional hand-hand-knee configuration. But his left leg is rebellious; impatient, it refuses to touch knee to floor and instead stays up in bear-crawl position, providing a kick start to propel him forward at a more satisfying pace. When he sees something he wants, he sniffs and snuffs as if he’ll get it faster with the assistance of nose-power.

Recently Eleanor said, “Hey Mama, Eli looks like we’re going to tie-dye him.” I had no idea what she was talking about, so I didn’t respond right away. Then I got it: “Do you mean it looks like he has rubber bands in the creases of his chubby parts?” I asked. Eleanor is right. And I'm proud of it. Eli’s soft-as-silk chubby sausage appendages represent hours of breast-feeding and patient baby food spooning. His chubbiness calls out to be nibbled and rooted, and draws me in like an open dishwasher attracts a crawling baby.

Next month we’ll celebrate Eli’s birthday with little Teddy Bear cakes, made from a tin that Eli loves to pull out of the kitchen cupboard (we might even wash it first). We’ll sing Happy Birthday and watch as Eli gets a taste of sugar. And when it is quiet, I will lean down and whisper in Eli’s ear: “We’re so glad you’re here, Littlest One.”

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Warning: Severe Behavioral Advisory in Effect

Today the news warns of severe weather conditions throughout Washington State. Flood warnings are in effect for most counties.

Our family is enduring severe conditions of its own: we’ve been lambasted by a behavioral storm that threatens to unearth the foundation of our previously peaceful home, shatter its windows, and send it crashing down in the middle of a Kansas wheat field.

In the past 24 hours our family has seen more fights than the World Heavyweight Championship. I’m not able to recount the causes of these battles, because I was never privy to them. But just so you can live vicariously through me (get a life, why don’t ya?), I will share the lasting impressions:

Sylvia in her room after a time-out, with wipes scattered on her floor like little patches of snow—yellow snow, that is—as she attempts to clean up the “accident” she had on her chair;

Eleanor’s best pal crying and covering his bloody ear as he runs down the stairs to escape his 5-year-old assailant during their two hour play-date that only lasts twenty minutes;

Eleanor’s lengthy, tedious, and ultimately unresolved cross-examination of Tobin and I regarding why she didn’t receive a birthday present from us (Being too young to fully understand consumerism’s impact on global warming, she isn’t keen on our new practice of giving experiences instead of stuff. Has the thrill of the Dead Stuffed Animals exhibit worn off already? I mean, come on!);

Eli, at 11 months of age, issuing the Emancipation Proclamation for Babies Everywhere, which holds this truth to be self evident (I know I’m mixing my metaphors here, but cut me some slack): babies want and need to feed themselves; they do not want any help; and they will cry and scream if you try to feed them, even if they are simultaneously crying and screaming because of severe hunger.

Last night, with a pinch of desperation and a dash of retribution, I hastily gathered up all of the Halloween candy and threw it in the trash (there wasn’t really that much left since we’d been stealthily culling it each night after the girls went to bed). “Do it! Do it quickly, before you change your mind,” Tobin encouraged. Viewing the candy as the source of the behavioral funk, I attempted to rid ourselves of its evil influence, like the Brady Bunch boys returning the Tiki idol to the ancient burial ground after it had ruined their Hawaiian family vacation. So far, I cannot report any corresponding change in behavior.

I just checked for a 10-day forecast. Until Tuesday, November 14—when the weather will return to “mostly cloudy”—the forecast can be summarized as a large, dark cloud leaking chubby blue raindrops.

I sure hope the storm in my home passes before then.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Great Expectations

If you had visited my house in August, you’d have received a tutorial on volcanoes. Regardless of your knowledge upon arrival, you’d have left our house swimming in a sea of volcanic factoids, pushing and moving them in an attempt to escape—half delighted, and half panicked—like a child in a ball pit. Later, chewing on the end of a pencil, trying to compose your grocery list, you might have found yourself absent-mindedly and involuntarily mumbling “active, dormant, extinct, active, dormant, extinct.”

Inspired by an energetic, creative preschool teacher named Rebecca, who helped the children learn about volcanoes by creating them—complete with a real volcanic eruption!—Eleanor’s passion for volcanoes now rivals Oscar the Grouch’s love of trash. If you care to listen, or even if you don’t, Eleanor will evangelize about the hot lava that bubbles under a volcano’s crust, how it grows and grows, and finally pushes out and explodes (“with a big BOOM,” she’ll say) when the volcano interrupts. With the excitement of a sports-fan recounting the stats of her favorite player—her voice racing, her eyes wide, her hands conjuring up mountainous images from mid-air—Eleanor will list off the many volcanoes in our area. When she sees a mountain range, or even a large hill, she’ll want you to determine whether it is classified as a volcano. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself nonchalantly covering your ignorance with “hmmm, let’s look that up when we get home, just to be sure.”

Given Eleanor’s enthusiasm, and with her fifth birthday approaching, it’s no wonder that the idea for the Volcanic Adventure Birthday Trip popped into my head. We gave Eleanor the choice: “would you rather have a birthday party at our house, complete with cake, entertainment, and unlimited guests, or would you rather invite one of your best friends and go visit a volcano for the day?” I might as well have asked her whether she preferred a mound of slimy, green vegetables or a bucket of Halloween candy for dinner. Eleanor danced around in circles, yelling “Volcano! Volcano! Volcano!” before the question had fully passed over my lips.

However, some ideas are better in theory than in practice. Problem one: our family drafted and signed the Covenant Regarding Intent to Experience Volcanic Adventure in early September, while the temperatures lingered comfortably in the 70s, when the Parties to the Covenant envisioned a warm forest foray, complete with picnic basket, Frisbees, and layers of greasy sunscreen. By the time the Adventure actually began, the temperature had dropped to the 40s, and we’d entered the Rainy Season in earnest. It is November in the Pacific Northwest, after all.

Problem two: I stubbornly ignored the “don’t-put-all-of-your-eggs-in-one-basket” adage and insisted that Eleanor invite only one friend. This seemed a reasonable restriction given that we have three children of our own, and the precarious adult-to-child ratio was already endangered. But sadly, the day before the excursion, Eleanor’s friend’s mom emailed me and said that the friend couldn’t come after all because her grandparents were visiting from out-of-town. Luckily, the friend’s mom had hinted at such misfortune earlier in the week and I had called my Dad, a.k.a. Grandpa—Eleanor’s favorite person in the world—the one whose picture she’s taped on her bedroom wall, right next to her bed, so “he can always be with her”—and he graciously agreed to travel five hours to our house on Friday after work in order to spend Saturday traveling six hours in our van.

Did I say six hours? Because mapquest predicted two hours each way, which only adds up to four hours in my head. It’s either because of my fuzzy math, (don’t you imagine numbers dressed in cashmere when you hear that phrase?) or because we forgot that mapquest usually assumes a 60 mile per hour speed limit, even when the road is windier than a snake preparing to strike.

Driving to the mountain, with the angry rain noisily pelting the windshield—each drop warning “Turn around! Turn around!”—Tobin and I discussed the possible scenarios that we might encounter at our destination. The worst case, we agreed, would be if it continued to rain when we arrived, since our clothes would hold up to only a few minutes of rain-play. “Did it? Did it keep raining?” I hear you asking. Yes, friends, it did, and it was windy, too. We bundled with mittens, hats, and winter coats, (and snow pants for some), and we still barely made it the 50 yards from our van to the visitor’s center without freezing.

The Mt. Rainier Visitor’s Center (at Paradise) is slated for demolition and reconstruction in the summer of 2007. If you go there before its demise, you’ll quickly understand why. Built in the let’s-make-a-statement-by-building-the-ugliest-structure-we-can era of the 1960s, the center claims neither beauty nor functionality. Essentially, it is comprised of one large, serpentine ramp, with exhibits at each landing (think 1950s), culminating with an observatory at the top. We worked our way toward the summit, stopping first at the auditorium for a Mt. Rainier movie (“When are they going to show the interruption?” Eleanor kept asking, the irony palpable as she disturbed the quiet of the theater), and then at the Stuffed Dead Animals Exhibit, left over from a by-gone era (“Is that bear really dead? Can it move its eyes just a little bit? Can that coyote move its foot? Why not?” Eleanor wanted to know). When we reached the observatory, Eleanor was confused. “Where’s the volcano?” she kept asking, not understanding that the shocking magnificence of Mt. Rainier was hiding right behind a layer of fog as thick as the sample of Mountain Goat Hide that was bolted to the wall in the previous exhibit.

I’ll skip the details of the part where Eleanor, in a fit of rage, threw her hat over the precipice of the observatory, and how she screamed as it wafted all the way down to the bottom. And how, unable to stop crying, she buried her head into the thick plastic covering of a lodge chair.

Let’s fast forward to the parking lot, where there was the tiniest strip of un-melted snow on the sidewalk between the van and a tall barrier wall. Hooray for snow! Because, after reconciling the fact that Mt. Rainier in November is no place for a picnic, we had foregone the Frisbee and packed the sled instead. Tobin, super-hero Dad that he is, spent the next little while patiently pulling the girls in the sled, up and down the sidewalk, all in the pouring, pelting, windy rain, until the Park Ranger arrived in her SUV and extinguished that bit of fun like Smokey the Bear stamping out a forest fire: “there’s no sledding allowed down here because we’re concerned for the safety of the kids,” she said, smiling apologetically.

Still, we were blessed by small mercies on the ride home. As the drum-beat of the rain continued on the windshield, I strained to overhear my Dad sweetly singing to my children in the backseat: “the head-bone’s connected to the neck bone, the neck bone’s connected to the shoulder bone, the shoulder bone’s connected to the back bone, hear the word of the Lord,” and many other songs not previously in our family’s repertoire. Later Eleanor asked, “Grandpa, tell me a story about when you were little,” and I heard intermittent patches of his reply: “chasing girls at recess/ sorting strawberries, tossing out the bad ones and keeping the good ones/ driving a tractor to plow the field…” I could have reached out, grabbed hold, and enjoyed a long, gentle ride on the love-waves streaming in the air between those two.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that we experienced a Pizza Miracle at dinner time. As we drove through the Land of the Strip Mall, Dad asked, “Tobin, what’s the name of that pizza place you love?” and then Dad looked over and saw it, just as Tobin uttered the words: Round Table Pizza.

Finally, comforted by the rain’s lullaby rhythm and the movement of the car, Eleanor and Sylvia drifted off to sleep and the grown-ups sang along with Adult Music, in peace, while still-awake Eli improvised his own little baby song.

It’s hard to be five years old, with a limitless ability to anticipate, viewing everything through the lens of childish optimism and grandiose expectations. Because when things don’t go as expected, it is difficult for a five year old to express in words the feeling of disappointment. This is the theory that Tobin and I hypothesized after the children were tucked safely in bed, attempting to explain Eleanor’s fit and uncontrollable crying at the visitor’s center. “Well sure,” I surmised, “wouldn’t you be upset if you forfeited a birthday bash for an amazing Volcanic Excursion and it turned out to be a six hour ride in the van to see an invisible volcano, hidden behind a wall of cloud, that you couldn’t even see but that your Mom assured you was there?”

We went to bed agreeing that the trip was a bust, but trying to focus on the positive parts nonetheless (after all, it’s not every girl who gets to see a Stuffed Dead Fox posed as if eating a Stuffed Dead Snow Rabbit).

We needn’t have bothered with the forced optimism, because the next day, while eating a piece of Volcano Birthday Cake (after watching the volcano cake erupt—yellowish foam oozing from the toilet-paper-roll-crater in the center—), Eleanor asked, “Papa, can we visit a volcano every year for my birthday?” Tobin paused, stifled a laugh, and then replied diplomatically, “Um, well, it might be more fun to go to the volcano in the summer next time.”

And so, dear reader, you need not fret: in spite of a small spat, Eleanor’s volcanic love affair lives on.