childhood

Close-Up: The Face of the Fire

It’s twilight and raining when I leave in the van. I leave Smoke, my eight-year-old, standing alone in the field. (Kellie and Stump are inside.) Smoke’s got his winter coat on with the hood up. He’s holding a long stick and poking at the burn pile that’s been going all day. A sheet of gray smoke changes direction with the wind.

I’m leaving in search of hot dogs. Smoke’s been asking all day if he can roast them on the fire. All day I’ve told him “Sure—I’ll get those later.” Now I’m racing the darkness and I’m losing. The remaining daylight is dimmed by this thick blanket of gray-turning-blue-turning-black. The corner store has one sad package of hot dogs tucked between a basket of wilted lettuce and some string cheese. I don’t trust those hot dogs. I drive another three miles to the grocery store.

By the time I return it’s so dark that I can barely make out my son’s figure. Though it’s distant, I can discern the glow of the dying fire. I wade through thick puddles to make it there. I’m impressed that my son is still tending, unfazed by the dark and the weather. His concentration is steady. This is the same son who normally would spend the whole weekend indoors if I let him; the same son who, when I tell him that we’re going to the park complains: “But we just went outside yesterday!” This is the son who wants only to alternate between Legos, video games, books, and occasionally setting up a pillow fort with his brother. But this fire has now held his attention for hours.

We’ve lived in this place for two months now, and though we have land, we have mostly remained inside. We moved in the dead of winter; we moved through rain to get to school, and drove home in the dark. We’ve spent weekends huddled by the woodstove. We’ve read books and watched movies and baked cookies in our warm kitchen. But now, as spring slowly returns, we learn what it means to live on the land.

Earlier this week Kellie pruned the apple trees and left piles of branches. After school one day I insisted that my sons help me drag the branches across the yard and add them to the burn pile. Smoke protested: “But I don’t even know where the burn pile is.” I laughed at him. “I’ll show you,” I said. I recognized myself in him, getting totally stymied by some minor uncertain detail. Ten minutes later, Smoke was dragging branches when the rain returned. “We can go in now,” I offered, but Smoke declined. “I kind of like working in the rain,” he confided.

All I see now are glowing embers and thick smoke. The branches my son carried are turning to ash. My son spears a hot dog with a stick. He insists they are best when you set them directly against the glowing coals so they sizzle. He’s not interested in my suggestions. He likes ash on his hot dog, he says. He eats it in the dark, directly off the stick. When I ask if he’s scared of coyotes he says, “The fire makes me feel safe.”

Two hours later, after I’ve put his brother to bed, I cross the hall to check on Smoke. He’s been listening to Kellie read. She’s still reading. Smoke is lying on his side, turned away from her, so she can’t see that his eyes are closed and his mouth is wide open. I look at the clock. It’s 8:25. It’s been years—I mean literally, years—since Smoke fell asleep before nine. But he is worn out tonight from the weather and the fire. He’s asleep before bedtime not because he is sick, but because he is healthy.

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Close-up #1: Nightlight

Your childhood bedroom in your childhood home. It is a guest room now, with a different bed, but you recognize the sheets: tan and printed with zebras and gazelles. They were your sheets once you’d outgrown the Muppets and Strawberry Shortcake, and now here they are, thirty years later, unstained. You lie there now with your three-year-old. It’s eleven pm. Because it’s your second day on the east coast, and you are straddling time zones: it’s eleven but also it’s eight. You are tired, but your son is not—he napped from 5 to 7. Your son is feeding you lines of a story while you drift off to sleep. “Tell it Mommy!” he says, and then you come to for a moment, and utter aloud what you think you just heard, but it’s not making much sense. “And then the dragon peeled the orange,” you say. You’re not sure if you’re repeating what he said, or if your sleep-brain is corrupting everything, spitting back a story that has nothing to do with his original. He doesn’t seem to mind though as long as you keep talking. “Mommy, tell it!” he commands again. When you open your eyes you can see his face in the glow of the nightlight. The nightlight was your brother’s: a silver crescent moon set against a circle of frosted glass. When he was a child it sat on top of a small wooden shelf that your father had carved to look like a cloud. That shelf is gone. The nightlight sits on top of the dresser now. Its light softens everything. “I’m tired,” you tell your son. “Can I please go to sleep now?” You are surprised and relieved when he answers “yes.”

The feeling wakes you up a little. You open your eyes and he’s lying still on his back, his eyes open, looking at nothing, looking at the ceiling. You watch him for a moment. His eyelids grow heavy and close. Then they open again. Open, close, open, close. His stillness startles you. It wakes you even more. This is the boy who climbs trees and throws sticks, who fights you with all the strength in his body when you try to carry him away from the park, the boy who refuses food and then screams because he’s hungry, the boy who resists nap time until he collapses from exhaustion but who, by some strange miracle, agrees to bedtime. You wonder what goes through his mind as he lies next to you in this room that used to be yours. What is behind those eyes? You remember a time when you were about the same age, lying in this same spot, and you were supposed to be asleep but you weren’t and you found a penny in your bed and discovered that it left a black mark against the wall and so you kept making lines, over and over, your mind wonderfully blank, caught in the slow motion of leaving your mark.

Your son is asleep now. You are awake. You get out of bed and turn out the light. Outside the window you can make out the branches of the backyard tree, a tree you saw nearly every day of your childhood. Somehow, in spite of time, it looks exactly the same, no bigger or smaller.

image credit: https://www.pexels.com/photo/full-moon-during-night-time-53153/

When Children Bear Witness

This week I hit a deer.

One moment I was participating in the morning commute, driving with the flow of traffic, headed towards the onramp on a long flat stretch of road. Both of my kids were in the back seat. NPR was on. The next moment I was moving into something, I was braking, colliding; I was hollering Oh no! Oh God! Oh no! It took a moment for the rest of my brain to catch up, for it to name the thing that was happening. I have lived in the Pacific Northwest for twenty-one years. I have seen deer run down my street like neighborhood dogs on the loose. I’ve seen deer eating grass on the hillside next to the freeway. I’ve seen deer run across the highway make it to the other side. And just as often I’ve seen evidence of the deer who hadn’t made it, the stains on the asphalt, the road-kill. I’ve told myself that this was a thing I never wanted to be: a person who hit a deer. And now that’s what I was doing. I was hitting a deer.

Oh no! Oh God! Oh no! I kept saying, until Smoke’s cry interrupted my panic. I came to, and remembered that I was supposed to be an adult and in control. The deer had landed in the middle of the road. All of the traffic had stopped. From what I could see in the rearview mirror Stump looked stunned and Smoke had tears streaming down his face. “I wish this could just be a dream,” he said. I turned on my blinker and pulled into the breakdown lane. I turned off NPR. I didn’t know what to do about a deer in the road, but I knew that it was my job to see this thing through. “I’m so sorry,” I told my kids. “I’m so, so sorry,” I was saying it to the deer too, and also to the world.

In the seconds it took me to pull off the road, the deer had vanished, had somehow made it to the other side of the road and disappeared into the forest. Traffic began to move again. I stepped out of the car to assess my vehicle: a tear in the bumper, a small dent in the hood. A man with blonde dreadlocks in a pickup truck looked at me and then shrugged. I made a series of pointless phone calls. The Humane Society didn’t answer their phone. Animal Services told me they would help an injured deer in the road, but they would not go looking for one that had fled. My insurance company, after taking my statement, reminded me that I’m only insured for liability.

I haven’t known how to talk to Smoke about what he saw that day. I don’t want to push him to relive those moments if he’s already moved on. But on Wednesday, the day after the collision, I overheard him speculating to a friend about animal heaven and when I asked him why he was talking about that he answered very plainly, “the deer.”

As for me, I’ve walked around haunted, thinking about the empty space in the road where I’d seen the deer fall. How could she have made it to the other side? It wasn’t until Saturday that I finally realized that Smoke had probably witnessed what I had missed. “Honey,” I began, “did you actually see the deer get up that day?”

“Yes,” he said, and he went on to calmly describe what he had seen. What I wanted to know was had the animal managed to fully stand, and Smoke’s answer was yes, but she had fallen several times before she figured it out.

For the rest of the day I thought about what Smoke saw, that he had witnessed alone something tragic and grim, an animal so hurt she couldn’t find balance. I hadn’t seen it; he had. My own eyes couldn’t mitigate the pain for him.

This morning when I woke up, I saw that my niece had posted about a shooting in Florida. I didn’t want that to be true, and so I pretended it wasn’t happening. Two hours later at a friend’s house, this friend checked her phone and made a comment about 50 people dead. I didn’t want to think about what 50 meant.

By lunchtime I decided I would need to take a moment and find out what had happened. I told myself to wait until I had settled Stump down for a nap so that I could be quiet, but instead I just sat down at my computer and googled the search term “news”. I was mostly numb as I read about the mass shootings that had happened in Orlando at two in the morning, and then suddenly, involuntarily, my body absorbed some fraction of the truth of fifty people killed, and my face contorted and froze. That was the moment that Smoke wandered in. “What?” he asked me. For the second time in a week, I struggled to gather myself enough to make words. I told him that in another state fifty people had been killed with a gun. I wasn’t sure what to say or how to feel, and so I asked him, “Would you mind holding my hand for a sec?”

He gave me his hand. It was smaller than mine—but not much smaller than mine—and a little damp, and every time I loosened my grip he tightened his own until the seconds turned into minutes and he asked me “What state does Uncle Will live in?”

“Massachusetts,” I answered and quickly added: “That’s not where the shooting happened.”

When I started writing this post about the deer it was Friday and I had no idea that I would wind up here. One minute I’m driving, the next minute I’m colliding. One minute it’s Sunday morning, the next minute I’m sobbing at my desk. And just behind me, sitting in the backseat or glancing over my shoulder, I have this seven-year-old boy who is grown enough to see things I don’t want him to. And I don’t know what to tell him. I don’t know what to say.

stairs

To my Beloved: the last days of six

October 5, 2015

It’s just after eleven pm on your seventh birthday, and you are sleeping in my bed, snuggling two of your favorite stuffed animals.

It’s been years since we co-slept, years since you hollered for me in the middle of the night most nights of the week. These days you are a bunk-dweller. You climb up past my reach and stay up too late with your comic books and your headlamp. When I tell you to go to sleep you sigh and say “Just two more pages.” When I climb up to change the sheets, I can feel the traces of you in your empty bed, the grit and the scent, as if I’ve invaded your lair.

But tonight for your birthday you asked to sleep in my bed. You said that you wanted to listen for the owl who’s been hooting outside my window for the last two weeks, the same call I heard seven years ago as I lay in this same bed breathing through contractions.

You are seven already. How is that?

I’ve been thinking all week about things I might want to tell you in some future year.

  1. Last week I brought you to the free movie night at your school. You’d been begging me all week and so I hustled to get us all fed after work and make it to the gymnasium by six. I was surprised to see a girl your age greet you and chase you across the gym, and then more surprised when the movie started that she took a seat next to you on the floor. And actually, she wasn’t just next to you, she was against you. Eventually she rested her hand on top of yours. You let her. And in the moment a part of me cried out NO! Not Yet! while a larger part of me soaked up the feeling I felt between you. It was sweet and expansive. It was warm. My boy is loved, I thought. I took comfort in it.
  1. The week before that I was extra busy at work and had places to be in the morning. I didn’t have time to park the car, to walk you inside of your school, to battle your brother to get back in the car, and so I bribed you to do something you didn’t want to do. I offered you two dollars if you’d let me drop you off at the curb like some of the other parents do, if you’d walk your own self to the door. “Okay,” you agreed with a sigh. I had no idea how nervous I would feel watching you walk alone to the school entrance. All this time I had told myself that you just needed a little push and you’d be ready. It hadn’t occurred to me that I wasn’t ready to watch you walk away. All day I worried about you, as if somehow you might have gotten lost in the twenty feet between the heavy doors and the first grade line, as if you might be wandering our neighborhood, lost and alone.
  1. Your gait that day was excruciatingly slow. You looked at your shoes as you trudged along, and so many kids passed you. I felt sad watching you. That night I asked you, “How did you feel when I dropped you off this morning?” and you gave me a blank stare. “I mean are you sad, or is it okay?” “It’s okay,” you told me. In my mind’s eye I watched you inch so slowly towards the door, and that’s when it hit me: that’s your pace. Slow is how you go when I’m not pulling on your hand, or running after your brother or asking you to CATCH UP.
  1. We don’t talk about your R’s anymore, about the fact that you can’t pronounce them. After seven months of speech therapy, I wanted to give you a break. But I still hear you pause over words that feature R’s. I hear the intention in your voice when you try to say “Grandpa Richard.” I know that someday you will pronounce them, that your struggle to be heard and understood will be just a memory your body carries. I know this, but I can’t yet picture it. To picture you with fluid R’s is to picture you as a grown man, tall, quiet, freckled, and totally independent.
  1. Earlier this month, a kindergartener shoved you on the playground and called you a loser—three times in one recess you said. Apparently this is one tough kindergartener. And though this isn’t the kind of situation I wish for you, I enjoyed hearing you and your best friend brainstorm solutions to the problem. Your friend pointed out that the principal walks through the cafeteria at lunchtime and you could catch his attention then. You reasoned that next year, when you were in second grade and this student was in first, you would no longer share a recess period. You could simply wait it out. But you instantly questioned this strategy. “That’s, like, one hundred and eighty recesses away,” you realized, and recommitted to solving the problem.
  1. You never forgot about Jeremy, the child with a tiny voice who was your best friend for two months in kindergarten, and who moved away and left the school suddenly. I kept waiting for you to forget him but every few months you mentioned him again, pining a bit for the friend you lost. This year, when I asked whom I should invite to your birthday party, you rattled off a few names before you came to Jeremy. You said his name casually, but then looked me in the eye to see if I had heard you. “I’ll see what I can do,” I said. For all I knew he had moved to Kentucky, but I found his mother’s email address in last year’s school phone book. (By the time this phone book arrived it was spring and Jeremy had already been long gone. I doubted you’d ever see each other again.)

Jeremy’s mother wrote back within an hour. They hadn’t moved across the country; they lived a half an hour away. Jeremy’s grandmother would bring him to your party. I was filled with joy for you, but also a little worry. You hadn’t seen him for nearly a year. Once he arrived, would you even care? Would it be awkward? It wasn’t awkward. Jeremy arrived, six inches taller but with the same tiny voice, and carrying a giant box of Transformers. I watched him shadow you for the whole party, and I watched you keep him within the realm of your attention for the full two hours.

I’m not sure why your seventh birthday has hit me so hard—maybe it’s because Kellie is away for work and there’s no one around to distract me from my nostalgia. Or maybe it’s because seven is serious. You have left your baby-ness behind forever. Your mouth is a mess of teeth falling out and growing in, giant grown-up teeth sharing space with wiggling baby teeth. I can see you transforming away from cute and into a self that will continue to stretch and gain angles.

And somehow I wonder, are you going through this too? Do you get a little wistful at your birthday? Is that why you’re snuggled up now with your smallest stuffed animals, your chipmunk and your dog, sleeping in the bed that smells like your moms? Or do you just sense my own wistfulness and respond, as you do, with kindness. If that is the case, well then thank you for humoring me. Thank you, forever, for your patience.

When Our Children Struggle to Breathe

candle

It’s one in the morning, and my two-year-old son has finally returned to sleep after two hours of crying and struggling to breathe. I listen to his breathing; I track it. After twenty minutes with the nebulizer he’s finally found a smoother rhythm, but it’s shallow and ragged—he hems audibly between each inhalation. My own body has adapted to his; I can’t breathe deeply enough. Each time he coughs, my own lungs tickle.

I wonder if it would be okay for me to fall asleep here next to him, if I can trust the design of his body, or the design of my instincts to wake me if his breathing worsens.

At four am, I wake halfway. I note that he is struggling, but the heaviness of sleep draws me back in. I doze until he wakes wheezing and then crying in frustration.

Many times tonight I’ve considered taking Stump to the E.R., but Kellie’s still in the Mojave Desert, and Smoke is sleeping soundly in the next room. I’d either have to drag him along, or find someone to keep vigil on our couch. There’s a list in my head of people I could call in the middle of the night, but I wonder who sleeps with their phone by the bed, and who would answer the call.

Also, by now I know what means to bring a wheezing toddler to the ER. I’ve done it when Smoke was the same age that Stump is now. I know what they’d do. They’d move us into an empty room and make us wait. They’d hand me a children’s gown and I’d have to strip him of his warm clothing. They’d give him a nebulizer treatment and force-feed him a dose of prednisone.

I’ve got my own nebulizer here at home. I’ve got a doctor’s appointment at 8:45. I know what signs to look for: cold hands, blue lips. I make a deal with myself that I will stay awake and bear witness. I will call for an ambulance if his lips turn blue. But still, it seems to me that if his breathing got any thinner, well then he’d barely be breathing at all.

Stump stops crying for a moment and leans into me. “Peabody Sherman?” he whispers.

I wipe snot from his face with my sleeve. “You want to watch Mr. Peabody and Sherman?” I ask.

“Yes,” he answers, nodding.

fnd_mc_mrpeabodyshermanIt is four in the morning and we are watching Mr. Peabody and Sherman while the nebulizer runs. Stump sits quietly, transfixed, his mouth around the mouthpiece, plumes of medicine vanishing each time he inhales. The machine is as loud as a hair dryer, and I’ve got the TV volume turned up to compensate. I expect that any moment Smoke will emerge from his room, rub at his eyes, and join us on the couch. If this happens, if Smoke starts his day at four am, then my tomorrow will really be a mess. But somehow, even through there’s one thin door between this noise and his room, Smoke sleeps through it. I’m amazed by this, just as I am amazed that Stump’s tears have stopped, that he’s willing to sit still, willing to take his medicine, that he seems to have learned that there’s relief inside that nebulizer chamber.

I remember how it was to be a child with asthma. I remember lying on the couch all day with one hand curled around my inhaler. I remember tracking hours, waiting for the relief of my next puff. I remember coming to recognize the heft of a new inhaler vs. the lightness of a spent one. I remember sometimes waking in the night from dreams where I could not catch my breath to discover that I truly could not catch my breath. I remember how sometimes the inhaler relaxed my airways just enough to ease the panic, but still I panted and wheezed.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that my mother confessed to me how nervous my asthma had made her, how she would stay up at night listening to my breathing. She told me this before Stump was born, and before Smoke had developed asthma, but the depth of her worry made sense to me, and I hoped I might be spared the same experience.

But sometimes, inevitably, those things we wish won’t happen happen and we are surprisingly prepared.

My experience of parenting so far has been this: every night I go to bed hoping I might sleep well, and I dread the sleepless nights of teething, the ear infections, the vomiting. When I think about these nights, and I know they will arrive, I worry for my future sleepless self. How will I stay awake when I’m already so fucking tired?

But my worry provides the momentum to move us forward into morning, when his breathing will improve just a little, when the doctor will listen with her stethoscope and tell me that his breathing sounds labored, but clear.

Facing the Dentist

Any time I see a dentist appointment on my calendar, I’m tempted to cancel it. “Oh, that’s not a good time for us,” I think, before logic kicks in and I remind myself: there’s never a good time for the dentist.

Smoke needed two cavities filled earlier this week, and I prepared us both for the appointment by pretending no preparation was necessary. “So, we’re going to the dentist on Monday,” I mentioned a couple of times offhandedly.

“I hope they don’t floss my teeth!” Smoke replied. His most recent memory was of a check-up, where apparently the flossing irritated him.

“Don’t worry,” I told him. “I don’t think they’ll floss you.” I didn’t urge him to reach further back into his memory, to the times when they’ve drilled into his teeth. Sugar-bugs, they call them at the pediatric dentist’s office. As if Smoke doesn’t already know the word cavities. As if calling it something cute will make his visit to the dentist any better.

mouf

 I can’t imagine what it would feel like to have your mouth worked on as a small child. In part, this is because I didn’t have cavities until I was in my twenties. But also, I just can’t fathom how any child under ten can summon the composure to have his mouth fucked with for nearly an hour, to be prodded with metal instruments, to have rubber spacers stuck between his teeth, to have his gums coated with cloying flavored gels, to have a stinky latex barrier spread over his mouth and clamped into place. How can he stand, without the patience that comes with maturity, that feeling of the tired jaw, the raw and bleeding gums, the massive gloved fingers pushing at your cheek, the sound of the drill and that burning-hair-burning-tooth smell?

My own dentist has invested tens of thousands of dollars on personal entertainment systems for their patients. Every time I go in for fillings, the assistant offers me a set of goggles and earbuds that will play a movie that only I can see. I always say “Yes, please. Distract me,” even though I’ll miss two-thirds of the dialogue because I can’t hear over the drills. When all the work is over, I stumble out of there swollen-lipped, numb-mouthed, and groggy. It’s a strange feeling to have a movie projected a quarter inch from your eyeballs while someone drills into your teeth.

But Smoke didn’t even have this option. He had a little gas to calm him, delivered through strawberry scented nasal hood. And I had to watch. As the assistant stretched the latex dam over his mouth, she warned Smoke that he wouldn’t be able to talk. “So you can just raise your hand up if something hurts or if there’s a problem.”

“Okay,” he said just before she fastened the dam in place. He lay there, plank-like, wearing goggles and a bib, the nasal hood covering his nose.

nasal hood

We waited for the anesthetic to take effect, and for the dentist to be ready. I poked around on my phone for a minute, and then put it away, reminding myself to be present. This wasn’t my dental appointment to check out of.

When the dentist arrived with the drill, the assistant reminded him “breathe through your nose.” My attention wandered to the pictures on the wall; unicorns, gnomes, and wizards. My eyes wandered and kept wandering, failing to take in that Smoke’s left hand was raised. Was he trying to get their attention, I wondered, or was he just doing that with his hand? I couldn’t hear anything above the buzzing, but I heard the assistant tell him, “just a minute.” She gently patted his hand down.

Moments later the hand came up again. Both times he held it at a right angle. She patted it down. Up it came again. His arm rested, but the hand rose in a clear gesture: Stop.

Once the dentist had finished his drilling, they removed the metal clamps and drew back the barrier. “What is it you wanted to tell us?” they asked him.

“I’m having trouble breathing through my nose,” Smoke said.

“You’re doing a good job,” they reassured him, and closed the dam again.

I sat there silently, feeling betrayed on his behalf. I got it, I really did. They did this job all day, every day. They knew when a kid was in pain or truly struggling to breathe. They knew that Smoke was a talker, raising his hand to fill them in on every concern, and they knew that if they unclamped the dam every time he lifted his hand, they wouldn’t be able to finish anything. It was in everyone’s interest to keep going. I agreed. I wanted them to keep going. I wanted them to finish.

And yet: they had given him that option. Your hand, they had said, is your voice. And then they had ignored him. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but this strikes me as dishonest and unfair.

As the assistant applied the fillings and sanded off the edges, Smoke’s hand rose again and again, his feeble reminder that he was uncomfortable and waiting to be heard. “Hold his hand, Mom,” she instructed me during the last few minutes.

I held his hand until he was finished, unsure if this made me a comforter or a collaborator.

In the car on the way home, I told him, “I saw that you were raising your hand and I saw that they were ignoring you.”

Sometimes as a parent, I’m not always sure if and when and how I should rescue my kid. But Plan B is always this: I tell him what I saw and what I didn’t like.

Among Life’s Disappointments: The Two-Day Weekend

Weekend

Weekend

On Sunday I had to break the news to Smoke that Monday would be a school day. I wasn’t sure how he’d take it. So far, he hasn’t been forthcoming about his kindergarten experience. At the end of every day I’ve asked him “What was the best part of your day?” and every day he’s answered, “Recess.”

“You feel that way already?” Kellie asked him on day one. I guess we both hoped he’d say he loved learning songs in circle time, or mastering sight words during reading. But both of Smoke’s best friends go to his school, both have been assigned to different classrooms, and so recess is a twenty-minute parent-free play date. Of course that’s his favorite.

So, anyhow, I wasn’t sure if he’d be excited or disappointed to learn that Monday was imminent, and that Monday meant the beginning of the school week. We were lying sideways on the bed, and I gave it to him straight: “Tomorrow is a kindergarten day.”

“What?” he answered. His lower lip quivered. “But that’s not fair—I haven’t had enough home days!”

I understood where he was coming from. During the school year, I never feel like I’ve had enough home days. For the last two months, I’ve had the luxury of summer, where home days and work days blend together. I’ve taught one online class and paid for childcare here and there; most days I’ve graded papers through nap time or answered emails on the fly. I’ve been relieved from the Pressure To Perform during the workweek, followed by the Pressure to Do All the Shopping and Connect with All the People and Do All the Laundry and also RELAX and HAVE FUN on the weekend. Instead, I just worry about attending to one thing or another, keeping the kids happy enough, and hopefully enjoying some part of the day. I’m a little productive and a little bit restful, and the rest is just survival. That’s how it should be.

I think that’s also how it’s been for Smoke up until now. For the last several years, he’s gone to preschool two days a week, played at a friend’s house the other two, and had three days at home. So, kindergarten is actually his initiation into the American-Capitalist workweek.

And while before this week I’d been imagining that kindergarten is all fun and games, all circle time and finger painting, Smoke’s tears over home days have helped me to remember what school felt like for me as a child. School felt: Relentless. Every day I spent seven hours at the mercy of my teachers. We lined up outside the school and waited in the weather for first bell. We’d be shuffled then to homeroom, then to art or music, then to recess, then to reading groups. We moved always in single file, and every segment of the day was marked by the shrill sound of the school bell that rang through every classroom.

My teachers were kind. I admired them; I wanted to please them. But having so little agency exhausted me, and so I welcomed any break—holidays and sick days, weekends and vacations. I didn’t call them “home days,” as Smoke does, but that’s what I longed for. Days to sit in the square of sun that came through the window, days to keep my pajamas on till noon, days to meander on my bike, or play Barbies, or put my new reading skills to use. Days where home was at the center of my day, not just the place where it started and ended.

Monday came, as it always does, and Smoke woke up without my help. He dressed himself and packed his own lunch without complaining about the day ahead. But when we arrived at school it took minutes for him to settle into the kindergarten lineup, and once he had he stared off into space. He was slack jawed and just a little pale, his eyes unfocused. He looked unmistakably weary.

Weekday (one of Smoke's many selfies)

Weekday (one of Smoke’s many selfies)

Smoke is right. Two days just don’t yield enough time to recoup what the workweek has taken.

Gender Identity, Parenting, and Thank God for Frozen

I have an essay in Brain, Child today about how I’ve found the topic of gender identity to be both interesting and challenging to navigate as a parent. Here’s a clip:

Now that my son is old enough to dress himself, his drawers are filled with Spiderman shirts, Star Wars pajamas, and Transformers underwear. It seems the best that I can do is just embrace and love his boy-identity while trying to make room for balance. Right now balance means that we snuggle in Star Wars pajamas, encourage him to cry when he is sad, and have a “yes” answer on the ready if he ever asks for a pink bike or a Barbie—two things that I’m pretty sure will never happen. (read the full essay here)

I wrote this essay a few months ago, and things have shifted ever so slightly. My son has fallen in love with the princess-movie Frozen. I won’t go into analysis of gender roles in Frozen. I’m not going to claim that it’s a feminist film, but I am grateful for it. I speculate that my son loves Frozen for the following reasons:

1. Lowbrow Humor: Frozen does a great job of balancing comedy and drama. No matter how many times my son and I watch the film, we chuckle when Kristoff takes a bit of his reindeer’s slobbery carrot, or when Olaf the Snowman sings longingly about a day at the beach. We like that these princesses–or, Anna at least–don’t take themselves too seriously.

2. The Universal Theme of Childhood Loneliness: What kid (or adult) can’t relate to the Anna’s longing for companionship, her continual rejection, and her frustration in trying to solve the mystery of that rejection? Elsa too grapples with a universal conflict: she has a gift that she is told to hide from the world. I love that these princess characters are given meaty conflicts, and I suspect it is one reason my son finds the film compelling.

3. No one Holds Back: When I watch Frozen, I often feel like I am bearing witness to a small miracle of synchronicity that happens when all the right people were hired and cast for a particular project. This is how I feel when watching The Wizard of Oz or The Shining.  It feels clear to me that everyone who was hired for this project–the screenwriters, the songwriters, the actors, and the animators–gave it their all. That makes it so infectious, that even my ninja-wannabe son sings along to “Let it go” without self consciousness. Everyone in the world, it seems, sings along to “Let it go.” We just can’t help ourselves.

Frozen has opened a door for my son, and now he’s interested in watching The Pirate Fairy. This might seem like a small thing, but it has larger implications. Some months ago, he dismissed girls as potential friends because they “only care about princesses, not awesome stuff like ninjas.” Now that he’s in on the princess phenomenon his world is a little larger.

So, um, thank you Disney Corporation.  (That is a sentence I never thought I’d write.)

The Magic of Bikes

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“This is amazin’!” my son calls out as he coasts away from me. He’s been riding for two weeks now, and still he says it every time he hits an easy stretch, when the sun is shining, the road is straight and carless, and the slope is ever-so-slightly in his favor.

I know the feeling. My first bike was my trusty companion for years. Sometimes it was my only companion. I was an awkward child, one who couldn’t whistle or cartwheel or kick a ball. Other kids and their ways were a mystery to me. Often, at the end of my block, the neighborhood boys played street hockey; my best friend’s older brothers led the game and sometimes they’d call out to me, “How’s it going Berney?” If I was on foot, I hung my head and kept walking, unsure if they were friendly or teasing.

But when I rode my bike, I moved through the world with ease. I rode an old-school Huffy with a yellow banana seat and handlebars that dipped low. When the road was quiet, I’d zigzag up the street, then turn onto the sidewalk so as not to disturb the street hockey game. “How’s it going, Berney?” one of the brothers would call out, and I’d nod and keep riding. My only destination was the quietest road.

There were times I wasn’t alone, times when kids I recognized from school cruised out of driveways and rode alongside me for a while. On our bikes we were equals, and together we owned the neighborhood. No one would tease or torment. We just rode in figure eights, up and down hills, easily passing the time. We lost ourselves this way.

On the way back to my house there was a gentle hill and I’d lean back and rest my ankles on the handlebars, letting my wheels and gravity carry me. I trusted my bike.

My son is not an awkward child like I was, but he has his moments. There are times when he’s too shy to say his name, and times when he is so lost in his thoughts that he walks into a wall. So I was surprised to notice the ease with which he took to his bike.

Last week he rode the long straight road to our neighborhood middle school. I walked behind him, calling out reminders for him to stop at every corner, my voice nearly lost in the distance between us. Miraculously, he heard and complied.

When we arrived, a boy his age rode up and down a long stretch of pavement on a pink bike. My son joined him and they were instant friends, friends of the moment, racing and circling each other. The boy’s father called out “It was his sister’s bike!” I nodded and smiled, hoping that my gestures conveyed that I was not the sort of parent to judge a little boy for riding a pink bike.

My son isn’t one to judge either, and I held my breath as they challenged each other with near misses, the boy on the pink bike swooping in front of my son, my son steering away just in time to avoid a collision. As I watched, I tried to summon that same trust that I had when I was a child gliding down the hill with my feet on the handlebars.

They rode that same strip of pavement for nearly an hour, sharing the grace of easy friendship. It was long past our usual dinnertime and the sky was growing dark, but I let my son ride until he was sweaty and weary. I was comforted to learn that even in this age of helmets and curfews, of iPads and Netflix, bikes can still amaze.

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This post was featured on Half and Half

My Magic Office

-Do you like my office?
-I *love* your office!
-What do you love about it?
Everything!

From my own perspective, my office is a rathole. It’s windowless, and so I am tempted to call it a cave, but that makes it sound either cozy or mysterious and it is neither of those things. It is a small dark room that can either be over-lit with florescent lights or under-lit with a couple dim lamps. Most of the time I opt for under-lit until a student shows up, and I say “Let’s get some light in here,” as I scramble for the light switch. I don’t want them to think that I’m secretly a troll.

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But Smoke loves my office, and every time he comes to visit I’m reminded of the days when I was his age and I would visit my own parents at work. It was like being a celebrity and visiting a small but exotic town. There were endless smiling people to greet, and though I had no idea who they were, they often knew my name. There were new things to eat—like cracker cheese sandwiches from the vending machines, or clam chowder from the cafeteria—and I always left with souvenirs. I remember leaving my father’s office once with a small book printed on special paper. The contents featured illustrations of pansies that also looked like monkeys. I had seen it on his desk, and held it like a sacred object. When he asked if I wanted to bring it home, I could barely believe my good fortune.

Wow. I searched monkey pansy and found it exactly. The whole book is here: http://lanny-yap.blogspot.com/2010/08/project-gutenberg-how-to-tell-birds.html  I love you internet.

Wow. I searched “monkey pansy” and found it exactly. The whole book is here: http://lanny-yap.blogspot.com/2010/08/project-gutenberg-how-to-tell-birds.html
I love you, internet.

This morning Smoke woke up with a touch of pink eye. I had no meetings to attend or classes to teach, just a mountain of grading that needed my attention and so I packed the iPad and some headphones and brought my son to work with me. It seemed the whole day was a treat to him. It was a treat for him to draw at my desk with special pens while I sat at my computer. It was a treat that I let him watch a movie on the iPad and eat the stale snacks in my desk drawer. At one point I turned around and saw him crunching. “What are you eating?” I asked, and he held up a box of chocolate nonpareils that had been empty for months. He was eating the tiny candy dots that had fallen off the chocolates.

For Smoke, I imagine, sitting in my hole of an office is less like visiting an exotic town with friendly locals, and more like resting your head in a loved one’s armpit. It may be a little funky, but it’s also intimate, special and safe.

And then we went to lunch.

And then we went to lunch.