Monday, January 22, 2007

Book of Life

Last week, Eleanor and I finished reading Charlotte’s Web. It was her virgin run, and I told her that once we finished the book, we could go see the movie in a real movie theater. Setting her chin determinedly, thinking of the fun of her first movie-theater experience, Eleanor replied, “Let’s skip to the last chapter, read it, and go straight to the theater.”

We persevered in our one-or-two-chapters-per-night pace. Knowing Eleanor’s overdeveloped sense of empathy, I warned her of the sad part in advance. When Charlotte died, Eleanor was very quiet and her body curled in on itself. I stopped reading: “You okay, Eleanor? How are you feeling?” She bravely held back tears, asking, “Is Charlotte going to come back alive? Is she going to stay dead?” I told her we’d have to wait to the end of the book to be sure, but that I thought she would stay dead. Eleanor’s lip quivered as her mind wandered back to last Easter, and then—following the example set by Fern’s dramatic rescue of Wilbur—she pronounced the injustice: “It’s NOT FAIR that Jesus got to come back alive and Charlotte doesn’t!”

After several weeks, we completed the book, and journeyed to the theater for Eleanor’s cinematic initiation. I was excited for her, but also a little concerned that the thrill of the movie would overshadow the cozy togetherness we’d enjoyed while reading the book. To my surprise, after the movie, when I asked her whether she liked it, she stated “Yes,” with gusto, but then a long “buuut, it did leave out some parts, didn’t it?” I picked her up and hugged her; thankful for her critical nature, grateful that in the future she might still appreciate the value of reading the book before seeing the movie. “A like-minded daughter,” I thought, exaggerating the scene beyond reality, “A lover of literature! What a gift!”

Last night I ordered this quarter’s Book Club selections: we’re exploring a memory theme, so all of the books deal with memory in some way or another: The Giver by Lois Lowry; A Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier; and Oblivion by Peter Abrahams.

Eleanor snuck into my lap as I was net-surfing, looking for a used-book seller in my area, hoping for an Miracle like last time: I had ordered the book at 9 a.m. and found it standing sentry at my front door by 1 p.m. (it turned out that the “seller in Washington,” was in fact—in a stroke of environmentally-friendly luck—just 2 blocks away from me, and she’d just walked it right over.) “What’re you doing, Mama?” Eleanor inquired, hoping to get in on the computer action. “Ordering books to read for my Book Club,” I responded, absorbing her body into my lap in the space between me and the keyboard. Here’s the conversation that ensued:

E: (Exploring a topic she has asked many questions about in the past): Why do you have Book Club, Mama?

Me: Well, it’s fun to get together with friends and talk about good books.

E: What do you say about them?

Me: (Omitting the details of how we cavort, drink good wine, and dish about work, kids, and politics): We usually start with whether we liked the book, and then we talk about whether it was well-written, what it meant, and a lot of other things.

E: When will I be big enough to have Book Club?

Me: Hmm. That’s a good question. (Pulling an age out of my Hat ‘O’ Arbitrary Parenting): Probably when you’re a third grader. If you had a Book Club, what would you say about Charlotte’s Web?

E: Umm…I would say that I liked the book, except (scrunching up her forehead) for the sad, sad part when Charlotte the spider got dead.

Me: That’s a good start. Then a friend in your Book Club might say that Charlotte’s death was a necessary and important part of the story…((I mentally finished the conversation with an imaginary Third Grade Eleanor): …illustrating sacrificial love, and the value of a life well-lived, that life is richer when we help others. Remember the part where Charlotte says “What’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, and we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.” Do you think that, like Charlotte, we can offset the ugliness in our lives by doing acts of kindness?)

I looked forward to the distant day when I can curl up like a cat on the couch, me at one end, and a daughter or son at the other, each of us absorbed in our own books but sharing the warmth and intimacy of a common blanket. Then I caught myself.

It is sometimes difficult for me to live in the moment, to anticipate developmental milestones in a way that doesn’t eclipse the beauty of the here and now. Like Eleanor, sometimes I want to skip ahead to the good stuff. Last night, with thankfulness, I focused on Eleanor’s love of Big Girl books, and I reminded myself to take each day, one chapter at a time.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Unanswerables

Everyone who lives with a 2-3 year old expects to be struck down by a hail-storm of why questions on a daily basis. Amid the innocence, laughter, joy, and frustration of those why questions lurks an unsettling truth: there is a lot that we don’t know as parents. (E.g., last week’s why from Eleanor: “Why do most shirts cover armpits when armpits aren’t Private Areas?” Hmm, let me spend my precious few minutes of uninterrupted thinking time pondering that question and then get back to you). Tobin & I have twice sailed the parental ship through the choppy waters of the whys (one more voyage left to go), and we’ve come out the other side feeling self-congratulatory, glad to have reached calmer waters. But recently, another disturbing weather-pattern has blown our way: The Blizzard of What Ifs.

Here are a few examples that I jotted down recently, all originating from the mouth of Curious Eleanor:

What if the whole world was made of candy and you had to eat everywhere you went?

(Stopped at a traffic light): What if this light never turned green and just stayed red forever? (And as a follow-up): Where would we put the van if we had to walk home when the light stayed red forever?

What if sleeves were made out of napkins? Then could we wipe our mouths on our sleeves?

What if everything in the whole world was soft? Would Eli go around snuggling everything?

(And my personal favorite): What if Eli was in your nose and when you blew your nose part of Eli came out?

I think you get the point.

Sometimes these questions make me laugh, but other times I’m reminded—with a cold sweat and growing pit in my stomach—of the feeling of impending doom that I felt as I studied for the bar exam. Back then, I had nightmares comprised of question after question of unanswerable questions. Not unanswerable because I didn’t know the material—because, believe me, I did know the material (there wasn’t a moment of the day that I wasn’t reciting some flashcard in my brain: “The elements of a contract are offer, acceptance, and consideration…,” and I had vowed that I’d study hard and only take the bar once, and if I didn’t pass, I’d interpret it as a divine sign that I wasn’t meant to practice law)—but unanswerable because the questions were pure nonsense. Reading through the question in my dream—“blah blah square root of 24955 (there was always a little math scare thrown in) was blah blah anticipatorially repudiated the marriage of blah blah discrimination action blah blah what would the court rule blah blah”—I’d think, “How’d I miss this stuff? Oh God, help me! I didn’t study this! I can’t answer these questions!” Given the similarly bizarre, nonsensical nature of the What Ifs, you can understand why they trigger this PTSD response in me.

Considering this history, I’m sure you’ll forgive me if I ask some questions of my own. This is the start of a movement, people! Parents of the world, unite! Take Back the Questions! Repossess a smidgeon of your parental brain that was annexed by Kid Questions and tell me what I want to know!

Question One: Is it ever okay to lie to your children?

I swear, this doesn’t come up often in our family, except when dealing with the Unauthorized Recycling of Eleanor’s Projects. For example, the scene this morning:

Eleanor (looking into the white plastic recycling bin): Hey! This is my paper badge from church! I made this! WHO put this in HERE?

Me (biding for time, my back turned away, preparing lunch): Hmm? What’s that? What did you find?

Eleanor: My badge! (With loathing, her eyes squinting with disgust): It was in the RECYCLE BIN!

Me (first trying a truthful, generalist approach, avoiding blame): Well, I guess sometimes things get put in there accidentally when we clean up the house.

Eleanor (not deterred, insisting on finding the culprit): But WHO put this HERE?

Me (totally guilty, lying-through-my-teeth): Um, I think it might have been Eli…You know how babies carry things around and don’t really know where they belong…

Eleanor (smiling, all anger melting away at the very thought of her favorite baby): Yeah, babies are so funny. They don’t even know what goes in the recycle!

Me (already composing this blog entry in my head, wondering what damage I’ve done to the cause of Truth in Parenting): Heh heh, how true, Eleanor; ah, those funny babies…

Question Two: Will Sylvia ever stop putting unauthorized objects in her mouth?

Sylvia will eat just about anything (excluding healthy vegetables), and my concern is a teapot about to hit boil. At what point is a call to a Child Psychologist in order? Really; let me know what you think. Here’s what she’s eaten in the past two weeks:

  • Dirty snow (not just small flecks of dirt, but snow from the ground of a parking lot containing grotesque car dirt)

  • 1/3 of a tube of grown-up Toothpaste (prompting a call to Poison Control, where “Ben” assured me it wasn’t a toxic amount, and kindly gave me his direct line to call back if Sylvia started throwing up, whereupon I replied, “so I’ll just be calling you directly from now on,” and then “um, that was a joke” when I heard nothing but uncomfortable silence on the other end)

  • Paper

  • Markers (and I don’t mean just a dab of color on her tongue, I’m talking actual bites taken out of the top of the marker and chewed up like a Cheez Nip)

  • Cat food (this occurs nearly on a daily basis. Sometimes I overhear her say, “I am not a cat” before or after the deed, and I enter the room to her beaming, crumb-filled smile)

  • Whatever dirt, moss, or bugs she collected while licking the side of the apple tree

  • Melting Snow-turned-Ice from our back deck, which in the winter is covered in slippery Seattle deck-scum, dirt, cat hair, and other nasties tracked around by our cats and the Marauding Racoon who frequents our doorstep at night

  • Bits of Eli’s chunky board-book

  • Wood-like pieces that she picked off a rattan laundry basket (she wasn’t able to successfully chew these up but she did attempt it)

  • Nail polish flakes that she harvested from her finger nails

  • Whatever living organisms and grime she collected on her tongue before I found her, licking the hardwood floor of the kitchen.
And this is just the stuff I know about. God only knows what she eats at naptime or when she’s left unattended. She’s almost 3-and-a-half. Should I be concerned?

Question Three: Are we the only family cursed with poop-streaked bathmats?

Yes, you read that right! Our bathmats have two statuses: either they are snowflake white (which lasts *up to a few hours* after they’re laundered) or they are white with unsightly brown smudges (which lasts from a few days to a week while I stubbornly pretend not to see the stains). Inexplicably, our girls have adopted the practice of getting off of the toilet in order to wipe. Trying to be thorough (but failing miserably), they shift and scoot around the bathmat like a dog dragging its hind-end in the grass. Ahem. Now that I’ve divulged our family’s vulgarities, I won’t blame you if you gently refuse our next dinner invitation.

But please, do get back to me. I want some answers.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Dance of the Stomach Flu Fairy

If you want to catch the stomach flu, you needn’t actually touch barf. I just did that for good measure. This time of year, you only need to spell the word F-L-U to find yourself hunkered over the toilet bowl wishing for the easy, lazy days of, say, Boot Camp.

In our family, the Stomach Flu Fairy first sprinkled her evil pixie dust—like that strange, horrible-smelling powder that the school janitor used to shake onto piles of fresh vomit, each granule being equally as vile as the barf it intended to neutralize, leaving one to wonder, in chicken/egg fashion, whether the granules caused the barf or the barf caused the granules—onto our beloved Sylvia (3 years old). And before Sylvia could say Lysol Disinfectant Spray, she began throwing up. I went to check on her at bedtime, groping my way into her bedroom in the dark, patting around with my hand in her bed, trying to find her face, when… whoa, that’s not Sylvia’s face, that’s puke!

That was Thursday night. Why does it always happen at night, when blurry-eyed clean-up is twice as difficult; when even the most adept pukers have trouble hitting the throw-up bowl? (By the way, being able to throw up into a bowl is a milestone worth celebrating! Surprisingly, there is no entry in the baby book for it. I personally added my own line to each child’s baby book, since, in my opinion, this feat ranks right up there with crawling and walking. Evidently the squeaky-clean folks at Hallmark don’t agree).

Our famously-spunky Sylvia set a family record on Friday by spending the entire day in bed, burning up with a fever, only waking when I coaxed her to drink water or took her temperature. At 4:30 p.m., she arose like Lazarus, stumbled to her bedroom, and got herself dressed. (We thought this strange, since she normally asks for help getting dressed). She relocated her convalescent nest to the main-floor couch, and remained there for the rest of the day, fading in and out of sleep, offering small, weak smiles to anyone in close proximity.

By early Friday morning, after the aforementioned hand-to-barf contact, I wasn’t feeling so well myself. Thus, paradoxically, on Friday, I was treated to a rare luxury: a day lounging in bed with Sylvia. With Tobin’s capable hands steering the familial ship below, I snuggled in bed with Sylvia (who usually sits still to snuggle about as long as Tigger stops bouncing to call “hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo!”), read a novel (that is to say, I read an entire novel from start to finish!), fretted about Sylvia’s fever, and dozed with complicity. All things considered, being sick was a good trade-off, since my funky tummy never developed into full-blown bouts of barfing.

Saturday, we all felt tired, as if we’d spent the previous days running against the wind. But we were encouraged by the stalwart example of Eli, Baby Extraordinaire, who has bravely battled a cold/cough/ear infection combo for weeks, and is now working his way through a second round of antibiotics. “This is how you handle illness, Mama,” he seemed to say, “You just smile and pretend that you’re not even sick at all!” In addition to a runny nose, cough, ear infection, and diaper rash (his first ever, likely caused by the antibiotics), Eli woke up on Tuesday with what we call “Goopy Kitty Eye.” You know the kind—seen in kittens adopted from the pound—where the eye secretes a green goop that hardens into a crust and seals the entire eye shut. It’s technically called conjunctivitis, but that doesn’t lessen its nastiness factor. So, in addition to antibiotics, we obtained some medicated eye drops from the doctor. Now, here’s the amazing part. For the first application, I held down Eli’s flailing arms while Tobin applied the drops to his eyes. After two or three subsequent applications (over the course of the next day), Eli decided, “Hey, this stuff isn’t that bad! And my eyes are starting to feel better! I think I’ll just lie here quietly and hold still so that the full dose gets into my eye. Yeah, that’s the stuff.” (Note to reader: if you haven’t already become an Eli Groupie, now’s the time to go back and read “Ode to Eli.” This baby really is fantastic.) By day two Tobin could apply the drops unassisted, with one hand tied behind his back just to prove his fatherly prowess.

Sunday came and went in barf-less fashion. Score: One for My Family! Zero for the Flu Fairy! We won! She lost! We trapped that ol’ Stomach Flu Fairy, pinned her wings to cardboard, and placed her in a glass-top shadow-box to celebrate our victory.

But then, Sunday night, 1:30 a.m.: What’s this? Eleanor calling from her room? “Mama, I feel sick! Mama, I feel sick!” After Eleanor baptized the bathroom floor in barf, I relocated her to the downstairs bedroom where I could sleep with her and monitor her condition. Between bouts of barf and bedding changes, Eleanor carried on a thoughtful banter. With genuine concern, she asked in a sing-song voice, “Mama, what if Eli gets the throw-ups? He might get throw-up on his soft little baaaby skin!” During a cleansing, middle-of-the-night soak in the tub, Eleanor discovered a red thread in the water, and kindly offered it to me, her eyes dancing with the excitement of great discovery: “Mama, you can save this in your sewing kit for the next time you need some thread!” Umm, I think I’ll pass, there being little demand in my life for one-inch, barf-germed tub-thread of unknown origin...but thanks for the nice offer. Then, as we both climbed back into bed for the final time (4:30 a.m.), I whispered “Goodnight Eleanor. Mama loves you,” and she replied, “Goodnight Mama. I love you. And your Mama loves you, too. And so does your first Mama, even though she’s in heaven now.”

Then, as I lay awake, with Eleanor’s foot firmly rooted into my ribs, I thought about the silver-lining of tending to sick children: I believe that illness brings out the essence of who they are—it reveals their inner-most qualities that otherwise remain hidden by daily activities and routines—and gives us a glimpse at the adults they will someday become. I counted my blessings: for Sylvia’s quirky, cheerful, energetic disposition; for Eli’s mellow happiness; and for Eleanor’s empathetic thoughtfulness.

Tonight, after being barf-free for 3 nights (“good on ya, mate!”), Sylvia threw up in her bed. Yet she giggled and danced as she led the way to the bathtub (“I’m the leader; I’m walking first”), showing no other sign of illness.

Out of the corner of eye, I saw the Stomach Flu Fairy loading up another batch of dust. I’m just not sure where it’s going to land.

(Disclaimer: I don’t think you could actually catch the flu just from reading this blog, but if I were you, I’d go wash my hands now, just in case).

Sunday, January 07, 2007


My blog is a colorful, shiny jukebox. See all the flashing buttons? Just press one of them, insert your money (please, insert lots of money: naw, not that quarter, something green…there you go), and you can request a custom-designed blog on any topic of your choice. But please, choose carefully, because your selection will occupy, ruminate, ferment, and sometimes ruin my thoughts for the next few weeks, until voila!, the blog will pop out like a lightly-toasted bagel, ready for the cream cheese of your feedback.

(*Note: This blog is not a jukebox, and requests may or may not be honored. Your payment is foolish, and strictly voluntary, and shall not create any obligation on my part to actually write about the blog topic you’ve requested.*)