A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Now We Are [almost] Six

When I was One,
I had just begun.
When I was Two,
I was nearly new.
When I was Three,
I was hardly me.
When I was Four,
I was not much more.
When I was Five,
I was just alive.
But now that I’m Six I’m as clever as clever.
So I think I’ll be six now forever and ever.
--A.A. Milne

                The room was dark.  The stories had been read, the kisses given, the blankets tucked.  Both twins were supposed to be asleep, but one of them clearly wasn’t.
                “What’s wrong?”  I crouched by the bottom bunk, the inhabitant of which was dwarfed by her giant Winnie the Pooh.
                “Mama… I don’t think I can all the way brush my teeth myself when I’m six!  I can’t make the little circles like the dentist said!”
                As far as nighttime terrors go, this one was pretty easy to address. “It’s ok,” I reassured her.  “I can still help with brushing, if you want.”
                “Until I’m seven?”
                “But that’s only two years away.  Maybe until I’m eight.  Or nine.”
                I teetered between amusement and pathos.  This was the same kid who had told me, a few weeks previously, that she never wanted to be done with kindergarten, because she feared that first graders needed to know how to tie their shoes.  I could easily teach her how, I’d said.  “No…” she moaned, as if shoe-tying were akin to juggling live rattlesnakes.  She won’t let me throw away her favorite size-three corduroy pants or pass on the shape-sorter box to friends with babies.  When she was barely two, she used to hide in a cupboard to fill her diaper.  She knew she was perfectly capable of using the potty, but she didn’t want me to take the diapers away.
On the upper bunk is the other twin, the one who gave up the diapers right at her second birthday, pretty much the moment she realized that big kids wore underpants.  She’s also the one who spent an afternoon alternating between rigid focus and howling frustration because she was determined to be the only kid in preschool who COULD tie her shoes.  She’ll try to lift an eight-year-old or wrestle with a boy who outweighs her by thirty pounds.  During University Park Elementary School’s Graphing Week, this was the twin who was furious to find that the mathematical questions intended for fifth and sixth graders were too hard for her.
Now they are about to turn six, an age somewhere between little and big, between “I can do it all by myself” and “I want my Mommy.”  And I’m not sure which twin’s camp I’m in.
I used to know.  Six years ago, I had two newborns and a not-quite-completed dissertation. One day, when I was peeling one of the tiny, squirmy little creatures out of her oozing onesie for the umpteenth time, I noticed the tag on the small garment.  Underneath the Carter’s logo was the company’s tagline: “If they could just stay little.” 
I stared at the tag.  The baby shrieked because she was chilly (babies never shriek because they are covered in poop, only because you try to take their poop away from them).  The other baby shrieked because she wasn’t being held, or because I hadn’t nursed her for a whole 37 minutes, or just because she was a baby.  These things were sometimes a bit obtuse to me, and I hadn’t slept in several weeks, so my logic was off.  But one thing seemed pretty clear.  Much as I adored my children, with exactly the overwhelming devotion that had once seemed slightly daft in other parents, I definitely did not want to have two infants forever.
This self-admission made me feel a little anxious.  Was there something wrong with me, or insufficient in my love, if I was eagerly looking forward to a time when my kids could communicate in a manner that didn’t involve howling, and maybe play a few games of Scrabble with me?
Although my anxiety never entirely disappeared, it was somewhat assuaged by the passage of time.  The Sack of Flour stage of babyhood is rapidly replaced by the Wiggling Worm stage, and then the Barrel of Monkeys stage.  Infants change so quickly that there’s always something new for parents to gush about.  A smile!  A burp!  Neck muscles that don’t flop about like overcooked pasta!   I enjoyed every stage, despite the curdled drool, the awkwardness of trying to get through a door while lugging two car seats, and the necessity of installing dozens of little plastic gizmos on outlets, drawers, and cabinets, rendering them kid-proof and adult-proof in one inconvenient step.
My enjoyment was real, but it was also forward-looking.  I didn’t mourn the outgrown 3-6 month snowsuits because I had sacks of larger hand-me-downs lying in wait.  I was cheering the kids along as they grew teeth, gnawed on Cheerios, and learned to walk.  In retrospect, it was predictable that one kid seemed to find crawling demeaning.  It made her angry.  She was so desperately eager to get on her feet that she became fully bipedal at ten months.  It was also predictable that the other kid waited until 13 months, when she could be sure she wouldn’t totter and fall, then ambled around without fanfare. 
I don’t recall greeting a new stage with any pangs of regret until it came time to (finally) wean my little milk-monsters. I didn’t really plan to keep breast-feeding long enough to have toddlers who marched up to me and announced, “Want nurse!” but it happened kind of quickly.  I wanted to be done with it… and yet I didn’t.  My biologist sensibilities and my mom-sensibilities were equally entranced by the nonchalance with which my body, after doing nothing of the sort for 33 years, was able to produce two complete human beings, and then a couple of hundred gallons of milk.  Some women feel insulted or grossed-out by being reminded of their kinship with cows, but I kind of liked the simplicity and sisterhood of mammalhood.  I enjoyed being one with all the shrews, gnus, dolphins, and elephants who had done this long before me.  So I felt a little sad when I told the kids that the milk was All Gone, and ceremoniously re-sewed Boppy the Nursing Pillow into two smaller pillows, one for each crib.  One kid – I probably don’t need to say which one -- took this transition a lot harder than the other, and required a bedtime pacifier – not just for a couple of weeks, but for two more years. 
Despite this small blip, I was still gazing ahead to the horizon: to age three, the minimum for preschool; to age four, when their legs would be long enough to hike appreciable distances and pedal a tag-along bike; to age five, and the beginning of formal education.  When I was sick of reading Touch and Feel Farm, Corduroy seemed like a reprieve.  When I was sick of Corduroy, James and the Giant Peach was a treat.  Each birthday felt like a real celebration, not just because of the fire truck cakes, fruit dragons, and sunny playgrounds.  Each year, each new number, seemed like a new chapter, a new adventure.  Why bother being only three when one can embrace the excitement of being four, or even FIVE? 
This year, though, I find myself starting to notice not only the positives of growth, but also a few of the downsides.  Two kids are hard to cram onto my lap these days, although they still want to be there.  For how much longer?  The bunk beds will be too short pretty soon.  The peer pressure is starting to kick in, escalating the requests for tacky plastic toys.  In these peer groups, the restrictive gender lines are becoming more tightly cinched.  Life is more complicated, more scheduled.  There are tests and report cards – report cards!  What does it mean if my child does not yet Meet Expectations in kindergarten music class? 
On the flip side, though, I now get to spend my free hours with two distinct and fascinating individuals who ask questions about how static electricity works, how often whales need to breathe, whether the Easter Bunny can receive mail, and why the cement doesn’t harden inside the mixer. My answers are circuitous and fumbling.  I find myself jogging around the living room holding a beach ball and saying, “Now, if you can imagine that this is the sun…”  Yet my children still think I’m brilliant -- mostly.  Their ideas have the chaotic orderliness of poetry, and they play point-counterpoint to one another like a scientist who has been locked up for six years with an architect. 
“Look, every strawberry is different,” says one, rolling the fat fruits between her small fingers, examining each dent and seed.
“Of course,” says the other, cramming one into her mouth.  “They all have different DNA.”
Young Christopher Robin Milne once loved his teddy bear.  He built things out of chairs.  He was afraid of invisible Heffalumps.  He was six, and as clever as clever.  But he didn’t stay six forever and ever.  He got older, and went to boarding school, where he was mocked for the stories his dad had written.  He came to hate the books.  In their pages, he would always have a pudding-bowl haircut, a nanny, and no idea how to spell Wednesday.  He was furious at his father for exploiting the person he used to be.  Cuteness is all very well, but it has a sell-by date, after which it’s about as appealing as a fermenting haddock.
Luckily, my writing has an audience of no more than a hundred people, and it’s unlikely I’m dooming my kids to infantile notoriety.  They probably won’t, like Christopher Robin, have to take up boxing to defend themselves against Pooh tormentors.  Still, I know that no matter how obscure I am, there will come a point in time when I will embarrass my kids.  They may not cringe over my writing, but they will hate my socks or roll their eyes at my jokes or try to convince their friends that they have not in any way been influenced by my appreciation for Thai eggplant, They Might Be Giants, or E.B. White.
For now, though, they’re willing to appreciate Charlotte’s Web from the vantage point of my lap.  How long will this last?  A year ago, they couldn’t read.  Now, they can, albeit with a lot of stumbling.  This transformation, like so many others, is wonderful.  I can’t wait to invite my kids to meet the residents of Prydain and Middle Earth and Wildcat Island and Hogwarts.  But I hope they let me keep reading out loud for a while longer, so that I can go there with them.
These days, we read four bedtime stories each night, with each family member taking a turn.  Then I tuck in the blankets, and the kids snuggle down with their heads on those old halves of Boppy.
“Good night, my big girl!”  I give my child a kiss.
I pause.  “What’s wrong?”
“Mama… I’m NOT big.  I’m little.  And… I want to be with you!  I want to be with you forever.”
I’m immobilized by surprise.  Not by the sentiment – but by whom it’s coming from.  My five-going-on-twelve girl.  Little Miss I-Can-Do-It-All-By-Myself.
Of course, there’s only one possible answer. “Ok, little one,” I agree.  I give her another kiss. 
She’ll change her mind, I know.  I’d be devastated if she didn’t, eventually.  But as to when she makes that mental transition – next year, or in ten years, or every day, back and forth, from now until college?  It’s up to her.  I’m in no hurry.  And yet… I can’t wait.  Because the only thing more fun than letting them be who they are is seeing who they will become.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Under the spell of English

“There can’t be a silent ‘gh’!”  Lizzy looked up from her literary selection, Clifford Goes to the Doctor.  She glared at me accusingly, as if I had personally invented the English language and imbued it with all its peculiar inconsistencies just to confound her.  “That doesn’t make any sense!”
“I know,” I sighed.  She was right.  ‘Light’ should be spelled ‘lite,’ just as it is on the rows of pink-dyed aspartame-sweetened yogurt at Fred Meyers.  I couldn’t uphold the existence of that ‘gh,’ and I wasn’t even trying.  If I was the court-appointed lawyer for my mother-tongue, I was doing a terrible job.  But given the unassailable claims being brought forth by the plaintiff, was a defense even warranted?
Helping two five-year-olds wallow through Puppy Mudge Finds a Friend and painstakingly hand-write their entries for the University Park Elementary School Annual Poetry Contest has reminded me just how agonizing English spelling is – but that’s only the tip of the iceberg.  Last week, Molly asked me why the Three Little Kittens cried when they found their mittens. I had to explain that “cry” means not only “burst into tears” but also “call out in excitement.”  A few days later, one of the twins’ friends looked at Lizzy suspiciously when she claimed to have “several” toy horses, and demanded to know what “several” meant – and, having been given a definition, how it compared to “a few” and “some.”  Our language is so full of superfluous synonyms, irregular verbs, double-meanings, multiple definitions, context-dependent connotations, impenetrable idioms, and maddening silent k’s that I can’t really blame my kids for their peevishness.  Back when I was discovering that ‘weird’ is spelled weirdly and that ‘flammable’ and ‘inflammable’ mean the same thing, I too was pretty sure English had been invented by sadists or lunatics.
I can recall debating with my second grade teacher, Mrs. Monteiro, about whether it was possible to hear the difference between the ‘wh’ sound and plain old ‘w.”  She suggested that it was; I hotly denied -- in my enormous experience as a seven-year-old -- ever having heard anyone speak that way.  She listened to my argument with her usual gravity, and agreed that perhaps the distinction was too subtle to be of much use in ordinary diction.  Mrs. Monteiro took me seriously, and in return, I adulated her.  She was an elegant, sharp-eyed, wry-humored woman who challenged me daily.  She taught me about planets, dinosaurs, and – when I asked what the word “boycott” meant on her lapel pin – labor unions, workers’ rights, and injustice.  On the first day of school, she told the class that her first name was Joan.  “You can call me that when you’re twenty-one,” she deadpanned.  I’m not sure the other kids understood the humor, but I felt teacher-awe wash over me. 
It’s a powerful force.  These days, I see Lizzy’s eyes light up when she tells me that Mrs. Claar showed her a caterpillar, or that Coach Davis is teaching sign language in gym.  I see Molly swell with pride as she holds up her paper maché globe and repeats what Ms Lewis told her about continents.  “Isn’t Eurasia a funny word?” she muses.  Yes, I think – and just wait until you try to spell it.  Both kids are thrilled to report that not only do their teachers and the school librarian read stories to the kindergarteners, but so does Mr. Bob the custodian.
Molly and Lizzy have always been huge fans of stories – as was I.  It might seem odd that I was frustrated with English as a child, given that I wasn’t a victim of academic despair.  On the contrary, I was an inveterate little bookworm. However, I was also fond of logic, and incensed by the lack of it.  I was good at remembering how to write incorrigible words like ‘neighbor’ and ‘necessary,’ but that didn’t mean I liked how they were spelled.  My parents still refer to Grand Union supermarkets as Grand Onions, because that’s what I insisted the sign said when I was four.   I can remember being personally affronted by the fact that ‘doctor’ does not end in ‘er.’ 
Mrs. Monteiro had a fine appreciation for language.  She glanced at the picture books I was selecting from the school library, and scoffed.  I could read much harder stuff, she told me. She was right; at home I worked my way through a lot of Sarah’s books, so I knew I could handle the selections of a precocious ten-year-old.  Still, I was miffed.  I shot back, “What, like War and Peace?”
She granted me the barest flicker of a smile. “Oh, are you watching that on PBS?”  She was too.  Over the following weeks we discussed all 751 minutes of the series, then moved on to the next production: I, Claudius.
As a result of all that PBS, all those books, and parents who peppered the dinner table conversation with words like obfuscate, penultimate, and kerfuffle, I had a vocabulary large enough to earn me blank stares on the playground. Using too many words was a social impediment.  Kids who want to know whether something is ‘cool’ or ‘gross’ or ‘ok’ are suspicious of ‘exceptional,’ ‘repugnant,’ and ‘mediocre.’  Big words were not only impenetrable, they were also snotty.  I learned not to use them at recess. 
I don’t think Molly and Lizzy have yet reached the age of disillusionment, when they will realize that other children may not like them for entering poetry contests, or for saying, as Lizzy did earlier this week, “Look, a mosquito inserted its proboscis into my arm!”  Sometimes I worry that they’ll hate me for telling them that the talking bears in Goldilocks are ‘anthropomorphic.’
On the other hand, I never resented or discarded my vocabulary, even when I hid it.  Although all those words didn’t completely assuage my annoyance over the illogic, flaws, redundancies, and omissions of English, they were gradually seducing me.  There were patterns hidden in their depths – amble, ambulance, perambulator, ambulatory – and poetry in their syllables – mellifluous, susurration, onomatopoeia.  Grown-up words were also a free ticket into the world of adults – or, at least, the adults I most wanted to communicate with.  I played Scrabble with my dad.  I gave my mother whole notebooks full of pencil-scratched stories, and blithely asked her to copy-type them. I was allowed to join my parents and their friends in a game that involved inventing fictional definitions for words so obscure that only the dictionary knew which was correct.  And I chatted with my teachers, not just as authoritarian dictators of spelling quizzes, but as people. 
Mrs. Monteiro talked to me as if I were a grownup, but she also had a knack for connecting with me as a kid.  She noticed that my handwriting was nothing but a hasty scrawl.  She could have forced me to practice writing letters and words by rote.  Instead, she loaned me a book of poems, and gave me a special lined notebook.  I could read whatever poems I liked, she said.  I should copy my favorites into the notebook.  But it was a special notebook, so only the very best handwriting would do.  I glowed with pride.  I was a big kid!  I had a special poetry journal!  I was also a little kid.  I copied Jabberwocky, and a lengthy work by AA Milne: A bear, however hard he tries/ Grows tubby without exercise...
This week, Lizzy’s appreciation for language was bolstered by winning third prize in the school poetry contest – with a masterpiece about wearing underpants on her head.  She came home with a plastic kite and a smile that appeared to be larger than her face.  For a shining moment, when her class applauded, she was a poet, a wordsmith, a writer.  By bedtime, though, she’d remembered that she really doesn’t appreciate that ‘who’ and ‘eight’ are spelled as if someone pulled letters randomly from a hat.
For now, it seems fair enough to commiserate with her that ‘gh’ doesn’t make sense, that ‘knee’ has at least one letter too many, and that ‘knight’ is afflicted with a double dose of insanity.  Falling in love with words takes time and patience. Maybe it wasn’t until second grade, in Mrs. Monteiro’s class, that I first started to view our language in the full light of all its wondrous possibilities.  Maybe it was then that I began to realize that I was angry at English not because I hated it, but because I loved it so much. 
The internet wasn’t at our fingertips in 1979.  But today, thanks to a memorably-offered first name, it yielded the street address of an 81-year-old who donated money to a Political Action Committee called Voice of Teachers for Education.  I could be wrong, of course, but I’m guessing that’s the same sharp-eyed woman who taught me about labor unions and corruption within the Roman Empire while whipping my handwriting into shape with Winnie the Pooh. 
I’m a lot older than twenty-one now.  Maybe – with my fingers crossed, in hopes that I’m not too late -- it’s time I dropped Joan a thank-you note.