Month: May 2014

Hello, Bike

I bought this bike about six months before my partner and I decided to have a second child.

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It’s the only bike I’ve ever bought new and I quickly fell in love. It’s is a comfort hybrid, which sounds a little un-sexy, I know, like mom jeans. “Comfort hybrid” means that my bike is not designed for speed, which means that the moment I start to feel like a hotshot, pedaling for broke on a busy street downtown, someone on a road bike comes flying past me; it also means that that my bike won’t hold up to a rugged mountain trail. But it’s brown and sturdy and shiny, and it doesn’t tweak my back out. Comfortable, you know, like mom jeans.

I paid about $500 for this bike, and it was supposed to pay for itself in about two years since I rode it to work four days a week. Then I got pregnant. By the time my morning sickness had passed, I had grown a significant baby bump and riding felt like a risk. I reassured myself that I’d get back on the bike within a month after the baby was born.

That didn’t happen.

In fact, I didn’t ride my new bike for nearly two years.

Part of the problem was that, while I was pregnant, the tires lost most of their air and the frame gathered dust, and while I knew it would only take me about twenty minutes to clean, the chore was daunting. I could handle a little cleaning and I could handle a little exercise, but I couldn’t handle cleaning in preparation for exercise.

Probably every dry day after Stump was born I thought “Maybe I’ll take my bike out today.” And then I didn’t.

Instead, I just observed how time passed, and how often I had the thought about riding my bike, and how I still hadn’t done anything about it.

But then, about a month ago, I bought Smoke his first bike and he fell in love.

This is Smoke on his first day of bike ownership.

This is Smoke on his first day of bike ownership.

He rode back and forth on the flat road behind our house and cried out “This is amaaaaaaaaazzzziiiiiiiiiing!” And so finally, one sunny day while Stump napped, I pulled out my bike. I pumped the tires and wiped off the dust and the pollen.  It really did take twenty minutes. And I pulled out the bike trailer and cleaned that too so that Stump could ride along behind me. When Stump woke up, we caravanned to the park, cruising up and down gentle slopes, newly free and mobile.

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Last week, I bumped it up a notch by running errands on my bike and in doing so, I’ve been reminded of a few of the reasons why I love to ride.

1. The wind in my helmet. I live at the top of a big hill, so riding often begins with the rush of gravity and balance. At the bottom of the hill, I greet Puget Sound and ride alongside it for a stretch. When I’m on my bike, I feel like I’m part of the weather.

2. It’s work. When I ride home, I choose a gentler route, but it’s still a climb. I get to tune in to the rhythms of my breath, to tinker with the balance of gear and thigh muscle. I get to feel powerful, moving from point a to point b, my own body the only source of fuel.

3. The car stays at home. One of my parental pet peeves is the endless hauling in and out of car seats, the endless buckling, the parking, the closing of doors. Of course, our bikes come with their own set of accoutrements and rituals. Smoke now insists on wearing bicycling gloves, which often means he has to find them first. Still, the preparation for a ride feel less oppressive. I’d rather say “Put on your helmet” than “Get in your car seat.”

Oh, and just in case you need a pick-me-up…

This is What it’s Come to

Can you tell I’ve been in a bad mood lately?

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Smoke drew this at the kitchen table today while Stump was napping and I was grading papers. He had been asking me to buy him various downloads (Spider-Man II, The Lego Movie), and after a series of nos, I informed him, simply, “I’m just not going to buy you anything today.”

He looked stunned. “Not anything?”

“No. Not anything.”

“But why not?”

“We don’t buy you new things every day. That would be crazy.”

He seemed to take this in, to accept it almost, but moments later I looked on as this image took shape. It was clearly an illustration of how he was feeling, and there were a few aspects to it that broke my heart a little:

1. It’s not so much that he looks sad and I look angry, but that our happy faces are crossed out. That, right there, is loss. It’s not just that Smoke is aware of the yucky things that we are feeling. He’s also aware of the good things that we are not feeling.

2. Maybe you already noticed that in the center of the image, Smoke drew a heart and crossed it out. No love.

3. If he were merely illustrating the preceding moment, I would have mostly been amused. But Smoke’s drawing represents our entire week. His hurt is bigger than the news that I won’t download Spider-Man II.

meanmomKellie was out of town most of the week and I haven’t been at my best. I’ve been having a hard time discerning whether Smoke is suddenly acting out or whether I’m just incredibly grumpy. I’m pretty sure it’s both.

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This week he became defiant with a family friend who was watching him for a couple of hours. She warned him that she’d report his behavior back to me. “My mom doesn’t punish me,” he told her.

I am so relieved she told me this. Since then, our dynamic has come into sharper focus. As the lingo of modern parenting dictates, I don’t believe in punishment, but I believe in consequences, and it’s clear that Smoke is sensing that I’m not doing everything I should be. He wants boundaries, real ones, not empty warnings. He doesn’t need me to freak out, to lose my shit, to be annoyed every moment of every day. He needs me to calmly, lovingly, draw the line.

I think it’s pretty clear: I need sleep; Smoke needs limits. We’ve got out work cut out for us. In the meantime, I’ll keep an eye on his drawings for clues about how we’re all doing.

 

 

 

The Sweet Bee

When people learn that we keep bees, they think we’re in it for the honey.

That may have once been our intention–a pantry filled with honey jars–but so far we’ve only harvested enough to sweeten the occasional pot of tea. As you know, the bees are fragile these days, weakened by pesticides, nosema, climate change, and so we let them keep their honey; when there’s extra, we share with weaker hives, hoping they might make it through the winter. Honey is sweet, it’s true, but we’ve learned the bees have other things to offer.
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When I was a child, insects existed for squashing, for running away from in fear, or for burning with the white-hot eye of a magnifying glass. I never learned to distinguish the bumble from the hornet. As far as I was concerned, bees were mean, and honey came from the store.

But Smoke, my five-year-old son, knows bees. On sunny days, he says excitedly: The honeybees are out! He knows to inspect their legs for pollen, and that busy bees are good news. Today was one of our first sunny spring days, and I watched him approach the hive, carefully, and drop a rock in their water tray so that they would have a place to rest as they drank. When he finds a dead bee on the ground, he picks it up and holds it tenderly.

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These bees have made their mark on me too, have helped me to appreciate the beauty of spring in a newly functional way: flowers are food. In our yard, plum and cherry blossoms seduce our bees and we witness them drinking nectar, gathering pollen, helping to ensure that my family will eat fruit from our own yard this summer. With the bees’ help, there will even be a surplus, and I will remember them as I preserve the plums and berries, storing away sweetness for the winter months.

And I’ve come to respect the bees for their inherent selflessness. The bee does not live for the bee. The bee lives for the colony. They don’t share our self-absorption, don’t fret over how to spend their limited days, over how to balance family time and me-time. They serve. That’s all.

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The queen is in the middle.

When I travel now, I look for honeybees, and am surprised and relieved when I find them. Seeing a bee perched on a lavender plant in Waltham, Massachusetts, or on an ocotillo in Phoenix, Arizona tells me: this place has been bee-approved. Wherever you smell the thick scent of wax and heat, nectar and propolis, you are home.

As it turns out, honey is a minor perk compared to the gifts the bees have delivered to my world: their steady hum, their motion, their treatment of beauty as a purpose, not to conquer, but take and give at once.

See Ya

I feel a little ashamed to write this next sentence, but I won’t let that stop me. Sometimes the highlight of my day is leaving my kids behind and driving to work. I’m not saying that work is the highlight of my day. I’m not even saying that driving is the highlight of my day. I’m talking about leaving the kids behind—that part is the highlight of my day, sometimes.

Like this morning. Stump woke me up at 6:20. It was early and I didn’t have to leave until 9, so I tried to be an optimist. Maybe I would get some laundry done. Maybe I could pay some bills. Maybe I would find Stump’s missing shoe. Smoke still slept in my bed. He had crept in during the wee hours, taking advantage of the fact that Kellie’s out of town. I decided to do something kind and make him bacon, because he had requested it the night before. By 7:00 the house smelled like bacon and I had a load of laundry going in the washer. Stump, busy eating blueberries, hadn’t destroyed anything yet. I was rocking this solo parenting gig.

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All is well.

I was forgetting that it typically takes ten minutes or less for our house to descend into chaos. Smoke woke up, and as I prepared the toast to go with his bacon, Stump climbed on top of the kitchen table and systematically tossed all of the papers onto the floor. I gave Stump his own toast to keep him busy. He sucked the jam off of it and tossed the bread onto the floor. Smoke’s crusts wound up on the floor as well, and when I asked him to pick them up, desperation already creeping into my voice, he acted as if he couldn’t hear me. I looked around and did an assessment: in addition to toast on the floor, there was a crusty, greasy bacon pan to clean, dishes to wash, and laundry to move to the dryer; none of us was dressed and I still hadn’t found that missing shoe. My blood pressure rose.

“Smoke! Please stop tuning me out! Please pick your crust up off the floor, now!”

Smoke just looked at me. “I know you’re going to apologize later for yelling.”

You may reasonably ask why we leave so much crap on our kitchen table for Stump to mess with.

You may rightfully ask why we leave so much crap on our kitchen table for Stump to mess with.

Somehow, we made it out the door fully clothed. I may have even managed to remove the toast from the floor before we left, though I know I left the greasy bacon pan behind. I dropped Smoke off at preschool, got back inside my car, and breathed. I was alone. Smoke’s preschool is two blocks away from my favorite coffee shop and so I drove there. There was a parking spot for me. Inside, there were no children, only grownups. The barista asked me what I wanted, and then when I told her she gave me that, exactly. I said thank you, and she said “Have a good day.” I was amazed by all this civility. No one threw toast on the floor. And then I continued on my quiet drive to work, sipping my cup of coffee.

These days, so much of the pleasure in my life is based upon what isn’t there.

What’s in this picture?

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This is a recent illustration by Smoke. It might be my favorite picture he’s ever drawn. I’m guessing you might need a little help understanding the story, so here goes. The drawing takes place at Smoke’s best friend’s house, where there is a particularly steep flight of stairs. This staircase is an endless source of fun and fascination. Currently, Smoke and his best friend like to build forts at the landing. They’ve also been known to slide down these stairs on a sleeping bag. This picture features, from left to right, me, Smoke, and Smoke’s best friend shouting “No!”

Me, Smoke, and Smoke's best friend saying "No!"

Me, Smoke, and Smoke’s best friend saying “No!”

Who are we saying “No” to? Of course it’s Stump.

Stump saying "BYE!"

Stump saying “BYE!”

Stump is climbing the stairs because this is the first thing he does every time he enters this house. In fact, before we even the enter the house, he lights up in anticipation of these stairs. What I love most about this picture is that it so perfectly captures our dynamic. Look at all of us with our No’s, how ridiculous we are, how utterly powerless in the face of Stump’s determination. And then there is Stump, cheerfully oblivious, getting ready to surpass us all. His left hand, sword-like, points to the top of what I know is a staircase, but might also be seen as a mountain. Is he leaving us or leading us? Either way, the three of us stand with our arms in a gesture of helplessness, a trio of suckers.

Our Messy Lives

I took this photo last Sunday because I intended to follow up on my recent post about Stump, about how he is a bobcat, a wild child. I just wanted you to know that I wasn’t exaggerating.

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This was at the end of an outing to the park where he walked from mole hole to mole hole to dig in the dirt. At first I thought, well that’s okay, and then as he became increasingly exuberant, throwing the dirt so that it landed in his hair, I thought, whoa this is getting a little crazy, so I carried him over to the rock formations as a distraction.

The rock formations feature a kind of bowl that collects rainwater to which kids like to add leaves and pinecones and stir the concoction with sticks. On this particular day, someone had also added dirt, so it was filled with mud. Stump wasted no time finding this mud. Within moments, it was on his hands and up his sleeves and down his collar. It created a nice foundation for yet more dirt to get stuck to. When I pulled him away, he scrambled up the rocks, bobcat-style, leaving mud tracks behind him on his way to find more mole holes.

No, I didn’t have a change of clothes.

Moments later, a woman cut through the park with her corgi and Stump looked up from his digging. He clapped his hands and cried “dog!” over and over. As he began to walk towards the woman and her dog, she shot me a glare that said, You will NOT let your grubby child touch my dog.

On the way home, I thought about my parenting, and how sometimes I’m torn between letting my kids make a mess, and worrying about how I look to other parents or bystanders in that particular moment. And it’s true that my choice to let Stump play in dirt is as much a symptom of my laziness, my exhaustion, my I-don’t-want-to-fight-it attitude as it is a conscious parenting philosophy. But I stand by it.

That was Sunday I thought this was our mess of the week.

But then on Monday morning we discovered that Stump had thrush, an infection of the mouth, and our doctor prescribed gentian violet as a topical medicine. When Kellie brought it home, we discovered that it’s a bright purple liquid. We’ve been using it for nearly a week now, and once applied, it looks like Stump has been sucking on a purple sharpie. As a bonus, there are drips of it everywhere—on my arms, my shirt, the sink, on my favorite sheets, and on the dishtowels.

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All of this has me thinking about the other ways in which mess has taken over my life. My office at work, once neat, is now embarrassing. It features piles of papers from this quarter, papers from several years ago, boxes of books I will never unpack, and cups of tea that have sat around unwashed for weeks.

And then there is my brain, which is even more cluttered than my desk. If I ask you a question, I’m unlikely to retain, or even hear the answer. I will likely ask you the same question again forty minutes later. Sometimes, for no particular reason, I might suddenly remember a work-related email sent weeks before that I read once and didn’t respond to. Other times, I try to remember where I first heard about a particular article or movie, a task I could once readily perform, but now my memory is a blur of social media, blogging, NPR, and actual conversations.

Sometimes I feel like our world is designed to entrap me in meaningless chaos. My inbox is full of thousands of emails that I will never read, reminders to pay my bills or view my monthly statement, to buy new shoes for 20% off or activate my Quarterly Rewards Bonus. The institution I work for withholds hundreds of dollars from my paycheck every month, money that I can spend tax-free on child care and doctors visits, but I must fill out forms and submit paperwork if I ever want to see it in my bank account. This week I tore apart my house looking for an invoice I had paid off weeks ago. Three days later, when I picked up a notebook in my office, it fluttered to the floor.

I don’t know how other people cope. How is it that people pay their bills on time and stay within a budget and drive a new car and feed their kids dinner at 5:30 every night? How do they arrive at work on time, with neat hair, and not wearing mustard from the sandwich they scarfed while driving? How do they shave their legs and keep up with the shaving? How do they get the laundry done AND fold it? How do they manage to appear normal to their neighbors? How do they get their kids out of pajamas every day or leave the house with snacks and water and a change of clothes? How do they keep their kids from digging in the mole holes or climbing on the kitchen table and throwing cereal?

What?

What?

I know these questions may sound rhetorical, but sometimes I do worry that I’m missing some essential yet obvious life skill. Please explain your answers in the space below.

 

The Problem with Mother’s Day

Before we actually had kids, I assumed I could talk Kellie into conceding Mother’s Day to me. I’d give her Father’s Day, and I assumed she’d be fine with that. After all, I was the one who would be growing these babies inside my body, birthing them, and breastfeeding them at all hours of the day and night. It seemed only reasonable that I’d want that day to myself.

When Stump's daycare class made Father's Day gifts last year, this is what they did for us.

When Stump’s daycare class made Father’s Day gifts last year, this is what they did for us.

The problem that I didn’t anticipate, and maybe I should have seen this coming, is that Kellie is not a father. She’s pretty clear about that. She hates it when people call her “sir” by accident. And, though she pretends not to mind so much, I know it bothers her when strangers look at our family, try to quickly assess her role, and conclude that she must be the aunt or the grandma. Just last week she brought both Smoke and Stump to Costco and upon her return she reported that someone had commented in her direction, “Oh, the babysitter’s taking the kids on some errands.” As someone who is rarely acknowledged as a mom when out in public, she’d like to claim the title when she can.

So, my problem with Mother’s Day is that I have to share it. But I’ve come to see that this is the problem for all of us. In the years that I had wanted to become a mother, I had thought of Mother’s Day as a kind of extra birthday, a day where I would get to be the center of my own universe, to eat breakfast in bed, to open cards, to receive flowers. But, competition with Kellie aside, there are plenty of other mothers in my life—more than I can adequately celebrate in a single day.

There’s my own mom who, when she comes to visit spends at least eighty percent of her time cross-legged on the living room floor reading books and making block towers with the boys. There’s Grandma Jerry who bakes cookies just for Smoke every time he comes to her house. And then there are the aunts in our lives—sisters and sisters-in-law who nurture my kids while raising kids of their own. I haven’t even started on the other mothers in my life, the friends who keep me sane by hosting Smoke for play dates or listening to me complain. Instead of the center of the universe, I am just one of many planets.

This is Smoke's Aunt Cindi teaching him to ski.

This is Smoke’s Aunt Cindi teaching him to ski.

This is why today it dawned on me: I should take Father’s Day. It won’t be hard to do. The week before, I’ll tell Kellie that I don’t expect a card, but flowers would be nice, and she and the boys are free to bake me a German chocolate cake while I lie outside in the hammock and read.   I’ll mention to friends or maybe even post it on Facebook that I count as a father on Father’s Day. I’m guessing that people will go for it. Sure there are people who go fishing with their dad or take him out for sushi, but Father’s day strikes me as a roomier holiday, one where some of my friends might be scratching their chins thinking, “I already called my dad, now what do I do?…Oh yeah, bring Jenn a beer.”

Kellie turned down a pretty good offer. It’s taken me six years to figure that out.

I’m So Sorry

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I’ve been thinking about apologies lately. A month ago, a friend linked to this post on Facebook (A Better Way to Say Sorry), and lately it keeps reappearing in my world. And then this week, in a creative writing class that I teach, a student wrote an essay about the art of apologizing. It was a piece that had everyone in the class laughing with self-recognition, because it pointed out the truth about apologies—that they are essentially selfish in that we seek to be relieved of our wrongdoings. At a minimum, we want to be forgiven. And so often we want still more than that. We want the other party to admit that he too was wrong.

Several years ago, in a parenting class, the teacher taught me something incredibly simple that has changed my life. It’s one of those things that should be obvious, but to me it was a revelation: You should apologize to your kids when you’ve wronged them, she said, and a true apology doesn’t include the word “but”.

“I’m sorry I yelled, but you weren’t listening.”

“I’m sorry I grabbed your wrist, but you’re not allowed to run off.”

It was a practical instruction, and when I got home I discovered it was something I could easily do. I couldn’t stop myself from making mistakes, but I could apologize for them. It felt delicious to own my wrongs.

“I’m sorry I yelled.”

“I’m sorry I called you a sugar fiend. You’re right. That wasn’t very nice.”

Sometimes, as it turns out, apologizing frees me from all of the emotions that get tangled in a conflict. Sometimes, once I apologize, my guilt and even my resentment seem to magically evaporate, as if the act allows me not only to forgive myself, but to forgive the other party too.

But then there are the times when I fail to untangle, when the fighting gets messy, when I sense I am wrong but can’t form the words to an apology, when I’m unwilling to look up from whatever deep wound I’m nursing.

This past weekend was hard for Smoke and me.

At five years old, he’s capable of helping, but I struggle to gauge how much I can reasonably ask of him. I do know this: I don’t want him to grow into one of those twenty-something dudes who leaves his dirty socks everywhere and whose toilet seat is covered in dried-up pee drips, with random pubic hairs stuck to everything. And so on Sunday, I asked him to help me with the laundry by folding his own.

He did a beautiful systematic job—it was his own system, but it was a fine one. He laid each shirt on the carpet, turned in the sleeves, and then tidily folded it into thirds. The result was a uniquely folded shirt with a few floor crumbs on it. I was happy with that, and so was he. Stump napped in the next room, out of our way for once, and together we amassed a pile of folded clothes on the sofa. I felt great, imagining my future twenty-something son whose bathroom would gleam and smell like lemons.

Stump woke up just as we were finishing the pile, and I warned Smoke that he better put his clothes away quickly, lest all of his hard work be undone. But Smoke decided he wanted to practice jumping over his pile of folded clothes rather than put them away. And meanwhile Stump, like a good bobcat, systematically thrashed at everything in his path.

It seems like such a little thing right now as I write it. My five-year-old had an interest in folding his clothes, but not enough persistence to put them away. That seems both clear and reasonable to me now. But in the moment it was terrible.

“Honey, stop jumping. Put your clothes away,” I told him, but he continued on as if he hadn’t heard me. More clothes were falling off the couch. It didn’t bother him in the slightest that his work had been undone. He was happy.

“Put your clothes away. Now.” I couldn’t bear his happiness. What would I do? Re-fold the clothes? Put them away myself? Resign myself to raising a son who would make future partners do all the cleaning? “This Is Not Okay.”

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Because he was ignoring me, I began to storm around the house, angrily putting away laundry. Smoke pays attention when I storm, but that doesn’t mean he cooperates. He escalates. He launched pillows at me; he shouted and cried. The whole thing ended with him curled in a ball on the couch to avoid me. I grabbed Stump and stood on the front porch, trying to let my breathing calm me, while Stump pulled on my shirt and my face, desperate to walk out into the rain. But my breathing wouldn’t calm me.

It was true that I was deeply, deeply sorry, but I couldn’t extract my sorry-ness from my bitterness. I didn’t apologize. Neither did Smoke. Instead, Kellie came home and I complained to her. “If you find yourself in a power struggle with five-year-old,” I’d tell her later, “you know that you’ve already lost.” The bitterness lasted into the night and as I put Smoke to bed, I felt awful. I had to say sorry; I wasn’t ready to say sorry. Mostly, I was mad at myself for taking what had been a rare moment  where chores feel like fun and killing it dead.

The next morning, the awfulness had cleared and I said it over breakfast. “I’m so sorry that I yelled about the laundry yesterday. I wasn’t being nice at all.”  Smoke looked up from his toast. “What?” he asked. He couldn’t remember what I was talking about. It didn’t matter. I still felt better after saying it.

Chuck E. Cheese’s is a Breeding Ground for Future Gambling Addicts and We’ll See You There Next Week

“Is Chuck E. Cheese a mouse or a rat?” I asked my son Smoke as we pulled into the parking lot. I was hoping for a reaction and I got one. “He’s a mouse,” Smoke said, indignant. “How could you ever think he’s a rat?” It was Smoke’s first visit to Chuck E. Cheese’s—we had come for a birthday party—but already he felt attached to its icon, the giant grinning mouse.

Image Credit: Majiscup, https://www.flickr.com/photos/cups/

Image Credit: Majiscup, https://www.flickr.com/photos/cups/

I’d been to Chuck E. Cheese’s once before, long ago, when I was barely older than Smoke is now. At the time, Chuck E. Cheese’s was a relatively new chain and locations were few and far between. It was the type of place my parents never would have entered voluntarily, but a friend was having a birthday party, and so we made the forty-minute drive.

My memories of Chuck E. Cheese’s are remarkably wholesome and perhaps not entirely accurate. The space was vast and dimly lit; there were giant tunnel slides; there was a ball pit; there was Chuck E. Cheese himself, waving and offering every kid the same giant smile. It didn’t matter whether you were popular, a bruiser, or a loser. Chuck E. Cheese loved all the kids equally. He was kind of like Jesus that way. Before I even left, I longed to return. I dreamed about returning for years and remembered the experience fondly every time I saw an ad on television. But, of course, we never went back.

It hadn’t occurred to me that the franchise would have evolved in the twenty-nine years since my visit. So I was surprised, upon entering, to find that the Olympia Chuck E. Cheese’s was not identical to the Chuck E. Cheese’s I had visited in Danvers Massachusetts in 1985. It was one brightly lit floor, no bigger than your average mall boutique. There was no ball pit, just an eating area with rows of tables, and a single but elaborate slide tucked away into a corner. The rest of the space was filled with games. I hadn’t realized that Chuck E. Cheese’s is essentially an arcade, a Las Vegas for kids but with terrible food and mouse-centric decor.

There’s a commercial from the eighties where Howie, the birthday boy, is systematically ditched by all his friends because there are too many fun things going on to choose from. This turned out to be pretty accurate. When we arrived, the birthday boy’s mom handed Smoke a cupful of tokens, and he was off and running. The birthday boy himself was a new friend and Smoke had hoped to play with him at the party but, as it turned out, we only spotted him once or twice in passing. A couple of times, Smoke tried to catch his friend’s attention, but he was engrossed in a game of air hockey, and replied with a dazed nod.

Smoke, too, was a little dazed while watching Chuck E. Cheese perform the birthday song.

Smoke, too, was a little dazed while watching Chuck E. Cheese perform the birthday song.

In a way, the whole event felt like an induction into the world of capitalism. You get your cup of coins and spend an hour or two playing games. Like in Vegas, some are games of skill, and some are games of chance. You are rewarded with tickets, and the number of tickets you receive reflects your combination of skill, luck, and strategy. The goal then of gaming becomes not so much to have fun (that’s a by-product) but to Win The Most Tickets.

In the end, it’s absurd how little you can buy with the tickets. All of the prizes are crap. At the end of the night, Smoke squandered his fifty tickets on a small blue plastic airplane. “What does it do?” he asked the teenage clerk behind the prize counter. “It doesn’t really do anything,” she answered, not unsympathetically.

If you think about the process from beginning to end, it’s ridiculous and surreal in the same way our whole capitalist system is ridiculous and surreal. You show up and exchange real money for fake money, which then turns into even less valuable tickets, which you then exchange for a prize that has far less value than your initial investment (i.e. ten dollars for thirty-three tokens).

I guess this isn’t so different from what happens when I go to work and pay someone a hefty portion of what I earn to watch my kids, and then at the end of the day I’m too burnt out to cook dinner so I spend more money on take out, until the earnings that I’m left with are far less valuable than the time I’ve given.

In fact, just writing this is reminding me of one of Smoke’s favorite activities currently, which is to throw increasingly hard arithmetic problems my way. “Mommy, what’s two plus six?” “Mommy, what’s two plus six plus twenty?” “Mommy, what’s two plus six plus twenty plus one hundred plus thirty-two plus twenty-one?” My brain spins but I try to keep up because somehow it seems important.

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If it sounds like I’m complaining, hold on. As it turned out, the time I spent in the Chuck E. Cheese arcade was actually the best time I spent with my son all week. Highlights included throwing lightweight plastic balls (you know—the kind that would have been in the ball pit) at mosquitoes and aliens as they passed across a screen. At the other end of the arcade we found a set of skee ball machines. For one token, Smoke and I could take turns rolling the ball up the ramp and both of us scored nearly every time. It was easier than bowling, and more satisfying. Together, we felt like winners as we watched the skee ball machine spit out our reward of three tickets (the equivalent of three cents). We high-fived, and somehow I felt that I regained some of the time I’d lost at work this week.

An arcade might not be the ideal place for a group of kids to spend quality time together, but it was a great place for Smoke and me to cut loose. In fact, as it turns out, I’m so into fake gambling that I even spent a few of Smoke’s tokens when he wasn’t looking. I couldn’t stop myself.

By the way, it turns out that Chuck E. Cheese was originally a rat. It wasn’t until recently that he was re-branded as a mouse. So when I asked Smoke the mouse vs. rat question, I wasn’t just being a jerk. I was remembering the original Chuck.

As Smoke and I left the party that evening, he clutched his blue airplane that did nothing and wondered when we could go back. “Sometime soon,” I reassured him, but that wasn’t specific enough. It was a Thursday. “I guess we could go this weekend,” I offered.

“Why not tomorrow?”

Today was Saturday. We made it to Chuck E. Cheese’s before lunch.