Where do grumpy faces come from?

This is a face I loved and trusted.

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Look at that flat-top! It’s perfect. The black-and-white doesn’t capture the glint of his pale steel-blue eyes. I wonder what Dad was thinking when that picture was taken? I wonder what the photographer was thinking with that glower aimed at him…

This wasn’t an especially grumpy face for my dad. It was pretty normal – it was stuck that way. Ultimately, it became comic relief for the family. I think my brother Ted coined the nickname Mr. Sunshine for this face.

Dad hated being called that. In hindsight I understand it’s because he thought it was mean. It was. We probably should have smothered him with patient love and kindness instead of making fun of him, to help him heal over whatever emotional scar tissue was making his brow do that. But my mom never taught us that trick.

I have a picture of Dad when he was little, with his childhood dog.

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He doesn’t look grumpy yet. He looks pleased and joyful, as most little children naturally do. Especially around good dogs. I wish I had known him then. He looks like he’d be good for a big tickle.

Sometimes pieces of Dad’s younger, joyful self escaped through the mask. When I was a kid, he used to play swing standards on his organ and I’d stand next to him, singing along from the sheet music. These were cheerful and connected moments, emotionally intertwining my love for my father with my love of music in ways that continue to surprise me.

One of our favorites was a Cole Porter classic, “My heart belongs to daddy.” I thought my daddy just liked the tune. We weren’t a family where loving things were often said directly, only mean things. So Dad never spoke the words to tell me what I now know is obvious, that it was just a delight to have his little girl serenading him with the lyrics (without the sugar-daddy implications, which I didn’t even perceive back when).

I always wonder if I’ve developed the same grumpy face as Dad yet, but it’s hard to see myself objectively. I do have a good furrow right between my eyes. I don’t like it, but I don’t think even Botox could obliterate it. Making Michelle Bachmann eyes does the trick, but seriously, that’s just not a solution I can live with. I was already working on a grumpy look at 5 or 6, when this picture was taken. No furrows yet, but I spy a scary cross-eyed intensity in that stare.

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I don’t want to wear a grumpy mask when I grow up. I’ll keep working on it, and in the meantime here’s one for my dad, sung by one of his favorite Hollywood ladies.

Welcome to the CPC playhouse

Hey friends! Anyone wanna play with me?? It is SO. MUCH. FUN. I generally reject the view that staying at home with kids is harder than working a real job. At least for me. My children have emasculated me completely and reduced me to emotional rubble, but I still control everything–food, scheduling, activities, friends, privileges, rights, money, haircuts, clothing, medication, hygiene, entertainment, everything. I have absolute power. I choose to exercise it in a more democratic way than many parenting experts would advise, and Jesse has excellent anti-authoritarian protest tactics under her belt already, but still, I have it great.

Anyway, today was a classic day in the life of a spoiled housewife. I felt like the kids were needy so I abandoned housework. Again. Because I can! Who’s going to fire me? I kept notes through the day so that I could record it more accurately. Here are my minutes. Ready, set, go:

Wake up at 5:45 am. Because Nicholas. Keep him calm for a hour until he hears Anthony brushing his teeth.

While Anthony (my perfectly perfect husband) walks the dog, brews coffee for me, and makes breakfast, I engage the kids in our therapeutic bed wallow ritual. Jesse uses this time to get some important physical contact with me before she heads off to school for a day full of terror and anxiety. Wallowing sounds relaxing and lazy, but it’s not. Today Nick engages us aggressively in a game involving superbunny, his little pink bunny lovey wearing a pink felt cape. Also he tries to beat Jesse with a one-pound barbell. Super fun.

Breakfast. Pack Jesse’s lunch. Scurry around finding everything that’s supposed to go in her backpack.

Start hassling Jesse to brush her teeth and get ready for school. This used to be a sure bet for fighting words, but now we have a very high probability of timely success and happy humors. She gets down fast enough today for us to have a good 20 minutes before departure.

Dance off to some songs on iTunes’ alt-rock mix. Alt-rock doesn’t seem to mean what it used to mean. Imagine Dragons’ Radioactive plays, and this reminds Nick of the music video. So we do abridged re-enactments of the stuffed animal battles, 14 times. I counted. I have to be the bad toy. Nick’s bunny is the cute pink teddy with radioactive x-ray eyes. I go down every time.

Take Jesse to school. Very successful morning for her. She got out of the house with ease. I didn’t have to call the home phone to scare her out.

Back home. Nick plays with iPad while I do breakfast dishes and prep dinner in the crockpot (an anomaly caused by our ongoing range-free existence while we wait for delivery of new one). Then I keep my promise to sit next to him on the sofa and watch him play for a while. He spends most of sofa time begging me for new iPad games and fiddling around in “Settings” menus for all his favorite games. I don’t get it.

Play steal the dragons. In which the octopus and squid steal the two giant dragons repeatedly while eagle tries to retrieve them. I’m eagle.

Pony time! In which I get down on my hands and knees and Nick rides my back bronco-style around the living room, while our 6-pound little-shit dog (I mean that literally, her shits are the size of my pinky) gets in the way by yapping and trying to bite my ankles. We take this game to the big bed so I can buck Nick off without hurting him as badly. The blanket is green, so we eat grass and roll in the meadow. I’m the mommy horse and I have to marry a dinosaur. Nick thinks this is outrageously funny. I don’t get it.

Read books (Do Pirates Take Baths and The Little Engine that Could). Snuggle.

Nick pulls up my shirt and plays with my blubby tummy. He squashes it and makes it talk. He pretends he’s blowing air into it like a balloon while I distend it. Then he smushes it and I suck it in – the balloon is deflating! Gosh this is fun.

Suddenly Nick gets up; he’s obviously had some inspiration. Oh. He’s pulling down his pants and bending over. He’s making his butthole talk to me.

Why.

Pack 22 mythical creature figurines, mostly dragons, into a bag to share at preschool. Load the car and head out for lunch. It’s pancake house day! Nick and I relax at Maxfields for an hour, stuffing our faces.

Take Nick to school. It’s easy today because they’re staying inside, so I don’t have to suit him up in winter gear. Even a nature preschool stays inside when the windchill is below zero, and today it’s well below. Wimps.

Head home for 2 hours by myself. This is it, my free time when I can do whatever I want, like cleaning or laundry or the taxes. Today I call my friend Erin, whom I haven’t seen in ages, and we shoot the shit for almost an hour. I hang up because I’m running out of time.

Work out. Sit on the sofa recovering for 10 minutes. This is the end of my free time. I’ve accomplished nothing, without even the assistance of a water cooler or web browser.

The rest of the day is a string of child care activities. Pick up Jesse. Take deep breaths while she whines and yells at me and makes scenes in the school parking lot and the lobby-like area at Nick’s preschool. Pick up Nick. Head home and continue taking deep breaths as Jesse whines and screeches at me about her homework. Walk the dog. I breath in arctic vortex air as I walk across the ice field that’s supposed to be our driveway, and the sound of Jesse’s yodeling fades out.

I help Jesse with her homework when I get back, because now she’s calm. While she’s doing that, I hear Nick peeing in the bathroom. Then he yells out, “Mommy, there is poop in the bathroom.” This is not syntactically what I expect to hear, so I call back, “Did you poop?”

“I think so.”

What does that mean?? A lightbulb turns on in my head. “Did your poop go IN the potty?”

“I don’t think so.”

Jesse starts to snicker. I steel myself and walk to the bathroom. Nick’s standing, pants down around his ankles. The toilet seat is up. Urine is everywhere. There’s a giant turd on the floor next to the toilet. It’s a Wisconsin bratwurst. What’s with this shit? I want to say, but I tone it down for four-year-old ears and ask, “What happened?”

“I don’t know.” Now he’s playing dumb, but after a little Q-and-A he finally gets over his shame and tells me. “I was peeing, it was an emergency, and I felt something, and then I looked down and there was brown poop on the floor.” Jesse is in the doorway. “I want to see the poop!” Much cleaning ensues.

Dad’s home! Jesse finishes her homework and then reads us a library book about astronauts going to the moon, while Nick keeps trying to sit on me and pull up my shirt so he can put his ear on my tummy and hear it gurgle.

Eat the crockpot dinner, which is chicken and carrots and such. Anthony and I enjoy it. Nick thinks it’s foul and only eats seaweed. Jesse chokes down some carrots and then, while laughing at some goofy thing Anthony is doing, starts coughing and pukes a bit. She keeps it in her mouth and appears to swallow something big, and then she announces, “I just ate my puke.” I’m just completely disgusted. I get up for something, and she hurls again. I go straight upstairs without a word, leaving Anthony to clean up the vomit. I think the floor turd has asked enough of me.

The kids quickly follow me upstairs. Anthony cleans the kitchen while I give Nick a bath. Anthony doesn’t complain even once about the puke or the dishes. Then Jesse wants to “work out,” so we fire up some exercise video on the Roku fitness channel. We do 20 minutes of squats and things. I’m glad Jesse wants to do this, so I’m going with it.

We’re sweaty by the end, but time and hot water are short, so Jesse and I take a quick shower together. Bedtime! She’s earned an episode of Ben 10, and I don’t deny her. 25 minutes later, she heads off to bed with dad, and Nick and I snuggle up. 10 minutes later, kids are asleep.

It’s a wrap.

Just another ordinary day in the life of a housewife.

Grumpy about music lessons

This morning before I took Jesse to school, I felt inclined to hear something pretty but I had little time. So I settled on the bench and played myself a short prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier. I’m obviously not performance-quality anymore; in fact, my playing of most things is halting and incomplete. But the notes coming out of the piano help me remember the beautiful music as I hear it in my head, which is really all I ask for, and sometimes I amaze myself with what my vaguely arthritic fingers are still capable of.

It went better than usual with the kids. Nick was running around making animal noises a few feet away, but at least he didn’t sit on the keys, beat my wrists with plastic dinosaurs, or try to grab my boobs. Jesse came over and rummaged on the bass keys for some rolling-thunder sound effects, but she actually stopped when I asked her to. Then she listened until I was done with the piece and announced quietly, as she watched my fingers noodle a tune, “I want piano lessons.”

Yay.

It’s been a long road to here. I was hoping to hear these words someday. We tried Suzuki violin when Jesse was four, before we understood less opaquely what was firing in her brain. The teacher spent 4 weeks on the bow and wouldn’t let Jesse touch bow to string until she got the bow hand right. In hindsight, Jesse didn’t interpret this rather extreme approach as a learning process. Instead the reiteration of instructions and the need to practice the same thing over and over sent her the same message it would now: “you suck.” Since Jesse was late to language and verbal self-defense, and since I was clueless, she couldn’t convey this problematic feeling to me successfully and I couldn’t help her overcome it. Instead, by week 4 she just shut off and refused to participate in lessons, retreating to a corner of the practice room and whining strangely. I got really irritable about the whole thing, which – surprise! – was counterproductive.

It all made me very sad. When they were infants, I had high hopes that my kids would take early and easily to some instrument so we could play together and make beautiful music. I started piano lessons when I was 4; I was reading music right from the beginning; I participated in my first recital at 5. I always loved it. But now for some years I’ve been thinking my kids have the musical talent and inclinations of bullfrogs. Jesse has trouble remembering simple tunes and matching a pitch. When Nick tries to sing, he turns into a strange mini-basso, intoning on a single low note with strange overtones. Several times when he was a toddler, I had moms ask me if he was feeling sick after hearing him sound off. “Oh he’s just singing,” I would answer nonchalantly, shaking my head and wondering to myself if I should have his hearing checked.

But there’s music in our lives, and I keep waiting for osmosis to work. So my heart skipped a beat happily when Jesse made her announcement this morning. It took less than an instant for reality and experience to dampen my cheer. I looked at her sidelong, remembering the violin lessons and every other organized extracurricular activity Jesse has ever tried to participate in. It was like a surge of PTSD. “Would you use good manners? You can’t be rude to a piano teacher or act weird. I don’t want to waste money on that.”

(I know. I’m a classy mom. I have a deft, subtle touch when I communicate with my children.)

Jesse actually snickered. “I don’t want a teacher. I want YOU to teach me.”

Oh. I mean, oh no. Her intuition is right, of course. I’m the one who should do it, because then she can avoid a lot of anxiety and pressure. But I’m already exhausted just thinking about it, because I think it’s fair to anticipate that Jesse will act like a jackass and push all the limits of my patience. I’ll probably go for it anyway, because she asked and because I do believe it’ll lift her soul if she can get past her self-criticism and learn to make her own music. Like most things in the life of this parent, I suspect the lessons will suck, AND they’ll be awesome. Here’s to the next adventure.

Grumpy about home ownership

My house is in an accelerating state of entropy, and I don’t want to spend any money on it until I mortgage my kids to get the full-on expansion/kitchen renovation I’ve been dreaming of. The $8000 paint job of 6 years ago is peeling all over. With wood clapboards from the 1940’s it’s no surprise. There’s soft, rotting wood everywhere. Our front yard light is attached to the top of an old 8×8 (actual dimensions) piece of used-to-be-solid timber, which is now spewing sawdust from a massive crack, like a hollowed-out tree trunk that’s been standing dead for a decade. Half the rain gutters are rusting and falling apart. Our rear exit storm door has no knob; I open the latch by sticking a screwdriver through the hole where the knob mechanism should be. The storm door on our main entrance doesn’t close all the way, probably from moisture swelling at the bottom. The automatic garage door opener won’t close the door anymore unless we hold the wall button ad nauseum for a manual override. There’s a broad and shallow sinkhole forming in the front lawn, right where the water main comes in from the street. The gas line and meter are scary rusty. The driveway has tectonic cracks running its length. The concrete pad outside the kitchen door thumps hollow if you jump on it, suggesting significant erosion of the earth beneath.

It’s no better inside. We’ve had to remove 6 or 7 panels from the drop ceiling in the basement for various systems repairs, and we can’t get them back in. The dishwasher broke 6 months ago. We can only pull it out to replace it if (a) we rip out the renovation tile the prior owner laid over existing flooring, or (b) we disconnect the sink from all the plumbing and lift the entire counter up. So the dishwasher is a dish drain now. The drains on all our sinks are slow, and the toilets all clog easily. I’m convinced there’s a problem with the vent stack design. The living room hardwood floor is trashed with scratches and gouges. The carpeting in the bedrooms is covered in nasty stains. The guest bathroom toilet jiggles when you sit down on it, probably a broken gasket. The boiler for our heating system is making raunchy Harley noises (potato potato potato) whenever it starts up; it’s probably only a matter of weeks before whatever motor is making that sound breaks. I’m just hoping we make it to warmer weather.

Today I put some pork ribs in the oven for a slow roast at 275 degrees. Dry rub to die for, spicy and sweet. I like them to go for 5 or more hours, while I run around delivering minors to places or running errands. Today I happened to stick around just long enough that I was still home when the oven started singing to me with a string of unusual beeps. I ran over and the range display screen told me “F 2.”

Shit shit shit. “F U 2,” my display screen replied. I opened the oven and saw that the ribs were already blackened, just 45 minutes in. Wrong. I looked around and saw that the broiling element was on. Also wrong. Short version: range broken. At least this problem I can fix without breaking the bank, but the new range doesn’t arrive until Tuesday so my June Cleaver kitchen routine is on “pause” until then.

There just aren’t enough hours in a year to take care of all this stuff. I worry that huge colonies of ants are going to start migrating into my home soon, bringing with them creeping vines and a sub-tropical malaise. My house makes me feel like I’m trapped in A Hundred Years of Solitude, the world and my gene pool slowly decaying into a compost heap. This is bad. Come spring, some flowers will push up and I hope they’ll bring up some energy to share with me for home repairs.

Grumpy about emotional violence

I’m still obsessing about violence. I’ve got to get on to other issues, like the laundry and my dirty bathrooms, but the problem is, writing about this kind of thing memorializes all my inconsistencies and ill-formed thoughts–

I’m dying here. I just typed “ill” EIGHT times (including the one here in quotes) because my iPhone keeps changing it to “I’ll”, and my right thumb keeps twitching wrong so I’m space-barring instead of x-clicking on the autocorrect suggestion. Fricking autocorrect nazi lives in my phone, I just want to throw it at the wall and then crush it viciously into a thousand pieces with my boot heel and feed them to Nick’s 14-inch Schleich T Rex.

I’ll be back when I have a chance to turn on the computer.

It’s 8 hours later. All better. So what I’ve been obsessing on is that two days ago I actually thought I’m not a violent person, and even worse I wrote that down. It’s crazy talk. The fact that I couldn’t kill innocent baby mice to save them from suffering had nothing to do with my inner peacenik. I just wasn’t motivated enough, probably because I didn’t feel threatened by them. Maybe I don’t beat on people with fists and sticks, but I’ve spent more than three years following Jesse to therapy and working on controlling my emotional violence and verbal meanness. I may not have fists of fury, but I definitely have feelings of fury and a bad habit of letting them vent.

My mom was a spectacular role model on this front. When the mood was right, she was held in thrall by her rage. I once saw her chase my dad around the house with an empty wine glass, trying to break it over his head. He was a full foot taller and at least a hundred pounds heavier than her. She got close enough to make the slam, and as he put up his arms to defend himself against the blow, she was knocked over. The moment she went down my dad was filled with remorse and concern over whether he had hurt her. She was just fine, but even from the floor she kept trying to land a blow with that blessed wine glass until Dad took it out of her hand.

Dad was a big grumpy teddy bear, who never laid a hand on us in anger as far as I can remember. Mom, on the other hand, was unrestrained. Her anger was always self-assured. At her tallest she was 4-foot-11 and pretty slight, so she couldn’t really do any damage, but she was scary anyway. I once witnessed her chasing my brother Eric with a house slipper, trying to whack on him with it and screaming all the while. This was when he was a junior or senior in high school.  He was an all-Nor-Cal linebacker, 5-10 or 5-11, somewhere around 200 pounds, thick and lean and mean. I tell you, he was terrified by Mom. We all were. If she got going, she would lash out at anything in her path, and she had the wit and insight to make the blows that fell out of her mouth count.

I inherited Mom’s furies and passion, an instinct born of genes and childhood experiences. I guess there’s something positive about having strong feelings — actually, no, there’s nothing good about raging out at people you love. But Anthony tolerated my moods pretty patiently in our early years together. Fighting for us amounted to me yelling at Anthony, and then Anthony staring at me and saying almost nothing. Once I screamed at him in frustration, “WHY AREN’T YOU SAYING ANYTHING?? YOU SHOULD BE SAYING SOMETHING!!!” He answered me quietly, staring me straight in the eye. “I can’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t just be mean.”

Anthony doesn’t fight fair. Some time in our mid-20’s, when I still thought I was a rational, sane person, we had a big fight over something that must have been nothing. After my hot head had cooled down, Anthony looked at me with that appraising way that he has, like he was thinking carefully about what would happen when he spoke and deciding to say it anyway. “You know, Carla,” he started, “ever since I met you, I thought I was a complete dickhead about once a month. But it turns out, it’s not me. It’s you.”

Gah. It was a clean and accurate blow. I’ve never really recovered from it.

When we decided to have kids, I said I would never, ever yell at them, the way my mom used to yell at me and my brothers. It was the one true promise I made to myself. As if. Jesse puts everyone’s self-control to the test, but since I already had so little self-control, I failed the test early and often. I don’t know how much I’ve harmed her and Nick with my outbursts and cruel words, but I hope I can make it up to them in the years to come.

And I guess that’s what therapy’s for. I’m certainly doing a lot better than I was a couple years ago. I still yell at the kids sometimes, but now it’s usually not in a head-spinning, crazed, endless shriek. When I do lose it, I know better than to offer any justification for my failure. There’s nothing for it but to apologize and to ask my family to forgive me, over and over again until I can get it right someday. So far, they’re sticking with me, which is probably a good sign.

I have a solid handful of tools these days to help control my out-of-control feelings. One of the most important is admitting every day that I’m just naturally grumpy, the same way I’m five-one, half-Korean, brown-eyed. It’s my birthright. Knowing I’m grumpy means knowing that my anger at the world starts inside me, not inside my husband or my kids or the traffic. Almost every day now, at some point I announce to Nick or Jesse that I’m feeling grumpy. They seem to get it. Somehow, just saying the words deflates the bile I feel rising. Instead of feeling self-righteous, indignant, justified, I feel the fool. It’s refreshing. I’d rather be a grumpy fool than a screaming banshee.

grumpy about violence: motherhood

After I got pregnant I heard and read the usual stuff about how, when I popped my first baby, I would experience love like I’d never known before. I was led to believe that the onset of parenthood would be so transformative that I would no longer be repelled by squinchy, wrinkly newborns. I was skeptical. At 38 years, I thought my view of juvenile humans was pretty well fixed. Babies were unattractive. Also I had rarely met a child who I didn’t think was an excellent candidate for a thorough psychiatric evaluation. Anthony was a skeptic too. I remember the pep talks he gave me while I was pregnant, along the lines of… “You already know you’ll think the baby’s ugly when you first see it, but don’t worry. You will learn to love it.”

Still, friends and family insisted I would turn all ooey-gooey inside; I’d be molten-lava chocolate cake. And I did change unexpectedly the moment my firstborn Jesse arrived, only not quite like that.

Jesse’s pregnancy was peppered with small worries from start to finish. Nothing panned out, but I carried around a little bucket of anxiety for 9 months alongside my fetus (which is why I think it’s all my fault that Jesse has an anxiety disorder). They worried for a while I might develop placenta previa, but that corrected itself. The 20-something-week ultrasound showed a spot on her heart that was associated with a higher risk of Down Syndrome. My amniotic fluids were low so I was on partial bed rest for a time, and also there was some related concern that maybe there was a kidney problem. Jesse was very small from the beginning, and as we neared the due date there was growing concern she was failing to thrive. So we agreed to induce 10 days early.

Jesse was born with the umbilical cord wrapped, but not tightly. Still, because of the cord wrap, they didn’t drop her right on me. They took her away to the warming table to do thises and thats. Anthony stayed close to her, as we had already planned in the event of complications. The doc got right to stitching me up, so there I lay, splayed out and nowhere to go, pushing the epidural dose button over and over and wondering if it was working. They told me Jesse had a lot of hair, but this wasn’t meaningful information to me. I had one thought on my mind. “Does she have Down syndrome?” I barked. The doctor looked at me from between my legs like I was crazy. “Nooo!” She snapped, rolling her eyes. Satisfied with this positive outcome, I lay there and waited. I just wanted someone to bring me my baby so I could nurse her. So that was my second thought, after establishing that Jesse didn’t have any significant and obvious abnormalities: I needed to feed her. As soon as they got her in my arms, I set to working that out. Jesse got out a few drops and passed out, and then after a bit I handed her off to Anthony.

It was all business, really. I wasn’t gushing about my beautiful baby and cooing and all that. I mean, she was beautiful, but mostly what I felt was protective, in an extremely primitive way. I felt very consciously that I would kill anyone who tried to hurt Jesse, like literally. That was definitely new. It didn’t feel like warm and fuzzy maternal love. It was violent and feral. I hadn’t expected that.

(I have to admit that I don’t mind the wellspring of protective violence that now permanently lurks in my heart. I haven’t actually attacked anyone physically yet, but I’m a pretty aggressive advocate for my kids. I don’t take kindly to any sort of bullying from school staff, and I flatter myself that this has served Jesse well as she’s muddled her way through the early educational years. I like that I instinctively put myself between my children and danger. I like that, when we’ve come across large wild animals during wilderness hikes, I size them up and wonder insanely to myself if I can take them.)

I went through the same limited arc of emotions when Nick was born. His pregnancy was uncomplicated. I gave birth with no painkillers, got through induced labor upright, and popped him out in two contractions. They put him right into my arms and I remember thinking, “Huh. You’re bald. Oh well.” And then I got to the business of nursing him and preparing to kill anyone who tried to hurt him.

So what am I saying? I think I’m saying that my children’s births did change me, but not into a marshmallow of love. I was transformed into a mammary and a weapon. How cool is that?

Fortunately for Jesse and Nick, they have a sweet and doting father to make up for their neanderthal mother. Anthony took a shining to his offspring the way I think I was supposed to. One of my dearest memories from the day Jesse popped is watching Anthony hold his swaddled daughter in his arms. She opens her eyes and looks up at him. “Hi Jesse, I’m your daddy,” he coos quietly, his nose practically touching hers as they gaze deeply at each other. “Welcome to your world. I’ve been waiting a long time to meet you.” I watched them together, took a few photos, wondered when I’d feel that way.

Anthony filled the humanity void with Nick too, in another dear memory. Right after birth, Nick was blue with cold, and my body was too cold to warm him up, so the nurse asked Anthony if he wanted to take off his shirt to hold Nick. The alternative was laying baby on the table under a heat lamp. I don’t know if the nurse was more surprised by Anthony’s ready answer of “sure” or by his speedy shirt removal. But that’s how Anthony cooed his hellos to Nick, skin to skin as he warmed his son from blue to pink. I lay there and watched them, waiting patiently for that deep warm gooey love to well up in my heart. Maybe I’m still waiting.

.

grumpy about violence: baby mice

I’ve been stuck on the bunny I said I’d throttle with my bare hands to feed my kids. If I’m honest with myself, I’m actually not sure I could do it. Or, well, if I did, there would be an emotional spectacle around the event, many tears and much gnashing of teeth, and I’d probably bungle the job and bunny would take forever to die. Jesse or Anthony would probably have to finish it off for me.

I don’t consider myself a violent person. I don’t spank, I don’t hit my kids in anger. I’ve never laid fist to face on anyone. I do hate the rabbits that try to destroy my gardens each year and I make threats, but I can’t bring myself to actually do anything, not shoot them or poison them or trap them. I just yell and throw shoes at them. It’s pathetic. I’m weak.

Before Nick was born, when Jesse was 3, we went to a beach we frequent on Lake Michigan, at Kohler Andrae state park. It was a very hot day so it was busier than usual. Our habit is to hit beaches earlier in the day and leave by lunch time, so that we can avoid people. People are nothing but trouble.

As we were walking off the beach, a family – grandparents and a couple grandkids – was arriving and unloading their car. Suddenly there was much shrieking and jumping as they pulled out their beach chairs. There was a mouse’s nest in one of the chairs. It was populated. The grandparents shook the nest out onto the paved parking lot and the family wandered off blithely with their gear, leaving behind 4 or 5 hairless, blind, newborn mice – each about the size of my thumb – crawling about on the burning hot blacktop, right in the path of cars and people. As we walked past, we could see them struggling and hear their tiny little cries. They were obviously terrified and suffering. They couldn’t have been more than a day or two old.

I was overwrought. I felt we should do something as we got to our car. I looked back and noticed a person slouching along in flimsy bathroom-style rubber flip-flops. She actually stepped on one of the mice and appeared not to take any notice. I became even more distressed because even from 10 yards away I could see that the now-half-crushed baby was still alive. I made a plan: I’d start the car and just go run them over to end their suffering. it might take a few back-and-forth aims but that would do the trick. By now I was in tears.

I’m pretty sure I was blathering senselessly to Anthony as my feelings developed. He was as shocked and upset as me by the bizarre scene, but he didn’t lose his shit like me. When he finally figured out what I was saying I’d do, he shook his head dismissively. I don’t remember his specific words, but this is what he conveyed to me: “what the hell are you talking about? Shut up. That’s crazy, you can’t do that, you’ll just hit pedestrians.” As I continued with my hand-wringing, Anthony looked at me like I was useless (an accurate assessment) and announced, “I’ll just take care of this.” He promptly marched over and crushed each baby mouse with his foot, making sure they were all good and dead. Then he walked over to some dirt and cleaned off the bottom of his shoe. Then he came back and got in the back seat with Jesse. It was all very grim and business-like. He looked sad and vaguely revolted. He said to Jesse, “Sometimes you have to just do the right thing, even if it’s really hard and disgusting.”

Have I mentioned what an amazing person Anthony is? He is seriously badass. I know it sounds kind of creepy and weird, but when I saw Anthony kill the mice, I felt proud of him and I loved him in a whole new way.

I wish I could have just done the right thing, like Anthony. Those baby mice were dead no matter what. Mama was gone, and they were done for. So it was just a question of how long and how badly their tiny little bodies would suffer before they died. I should have moved quickly, but I was immobilized by something. I wanted 2 tons of automobile between me and the act of killing, but also that was just an excuse to delay acting. I’ve thought of that failure many times. I’ve come to believe that something deep inside me was shocked by the inherent violence that killing those creatures entailed. I didn’t want it on my figurative hands.

“Violence” feels like a dirty word to me; it implies something evil, bad, wrong. But Anthony’s small violent act – crushing the mice – wasn’t evil. It was kind, good, right. It made moral sense and showed a deep compassion. It gained him nothing, and spared innocent creatures some suffering. I don’t know where the boundary is between right violence and wrong violence. I haven’t thought carefully through the nuances of when NOT acting constitutes a greater violence than doing something. I’m sure many someones have thought about stuff like this and written brilliant things about it, in larger geopolitical and smaller personal terms, and I haven’t read any of it.

These are big, big issues, well beyond the scope of my little blog and my little brain. Whatever the boundaries are, if I ever again see a little creature suffering without hope, with death imminent, I hope that I’ll find the courage to do something about it without all the faffing and hand-wringing. I don’t want to disappoint myself that way again. If I ever have to kill for meat to feed my kids, in whatever unanticipated apocalypse might befall us, I hope I can do it quick and clean, without fussing about. I’m counting on Anthony to teach me how.

grumpy about meat

Jesse and Nick are going through a classic childhood awakening: the meat we eat comes from actual animals. Jesse, who’s a serious carnivore, has been down this road before, but clearly she’s tucked memories of those conversations away in some dark, dark corner of her mind. A couple days ago at dinner, she wanted to know where meat comes from. Seriously? Animals, I answered. She was shocked (again, just like a couple years ago), but she was still happy to throw down a quarter pound of bulgogi beef. Nick, who hates all meat unless it’s processed, was stunned. We turned it into a TEACHING MOMENT.

(I put “teaching moment” on the same shelf as “use your words,” “show respect,” and “wash your hands for 30 entire seconds.” It makes me feel all crazy inside, my eyes come loose in their sockets and roll around wildly.)

We went through a short list. Beef comes from cows (“whaaaat??”), pork comes from pigs… Kids, where do you think chicken comes from? Incredibly, there was a long pause and a couple of blank looks. Finally after way too long, Nick giggled and took a guess: “chicken?” AHAHAHA, Jesse laughed sheepishly at the trick we had played.

Holy crap. Sports skills and extracurricular community service will be essential ingredients in college admissions for my spawn.

Nick was pleased to report he doesn’t like meat, until I explained that hot dogs and bologna are meat. (“whaaat??”) Then we devolved to the usual blah blah blah. Hot dogs aren’t made of dogs, we don’t eat dogs. Why don’t we eat dogs. Because they’re our friends. Does anyone eat dogs. Yes, in some other cultures. Why. Because dogs aren’t their friends. Are cows our friends.

Sigh.

Anthony and I have often considered going meatless — vegan, actually, because what’s the point of halfway when you’re an extremist like me? — but we’ve never done it. I’ve made small forays into limiting meat. I stopped eating beef for about a year in college, after choking down some very rare roast beef when I was in a be-polite pickle. I was sure blood was dripping down my chin. It was horrifying. I stopped eating pork for about 4 years after reading a long NY Times article about the horrid way smart little piggies are tortured as they’re raised for slaughter. I don’t eat baby animals. Because they’re babies.

When Jesse was allergic to both dairy and eggs, I bought a handful of vegan cookbooks to find some alternative cooking methods – mostly for sweet treats – and read the authors’ entreaties to go animal-food free. It was compelling, and it made me think more than twice about my dietary choices. But I readily embrace hypocrisy (self-absorbed pragmatism?), and my body wants meat. I’ve accepted that I’m an omnivore. This became apparent during my pregnancies, when I craved red meat more than anything else in the world.

Even milk and dairy products are tethered to an ethical ball and chain, when you consider those poor mama cows lactating day after day. I think I’d just go on a hunger fast until I died if someone told me I’d have to spend the rest of my pre-menopausal days hooked up to a breast pump every morning, my mammaries chugging out leche for baby cows to drink. I guess I’m smarter than a cow, but really, that’s just a theory. After 9 years as a housewife, I’m not sure it’s reality anymore.

Eventually, I started buying all our meat from places like Whole Foods, where I can select meat from pasture-raised animals as often as possible (with labels that say they weren’t raised in feed lots and they were slaughtered kindly) and dairy products that come from smaller family farms and pastured cows.  The sheer cost of this shopping strategy ensures that we treat flesh and dairy more as condiment than main course, plus I can hold onto the fiction that there’s any compassion or kindness at all in eating the flesh of another being or drinking the milk of a female animal forced into daily lactation long after her babies are gone.

I offer my kids flesh of some kind almost every day. I’ve read about early brain development, and what I’ve read tells me that kids need plenty of cholesterol and animal-based fats and iron to have the best chance at a well-developed, healthy brain. Since we can’t eat eggs (Jesse’s allergy is prohibitive), it’s dairy and flesh for us. I’m sure there are alternative arguments, but that’s where my head is these days.

Meat-eating came up in our morning chatter today as we drove to school. Jesse wanted homemade hamburgers for dinner tonight, which in our world means buns from scratch too. I ruminated aloud about stopping by the grocery for meat, and Jesse interjected, “No mommy, I want YOU to make the burgers.” I replied, “Well if you want beef, I need to go buy some beef. What do you think I’m gonna do today, raise a cow and slaughter it?”

“What does ‘slaughter’ mean?”

Grrrr. My big mouth. I thought quickly. Better not tell them about cattle prods and saws. They don’t need to be imagining a sweet cow being hung up, skinned and taken apart so that its flesh could be ground up for their burgers. So I said, “It means kill.”

“How do they kill the cow?”

Deep breath, as I decided how to answer this. I settled on, “With a knife.”

There were various murmurings from the back seat as Jesse and Nick pondered the life and death of a cow, and Jesse pushed me for more technical details on the killing part. Jesse’s a strange bird about stuff like this, and often takes me by surprise. She’s really curious about the nuts and bolts of life. So, while she has a lot of anxiety and dread about made-up tasks like writing summaries of chapter books at school, she readily accepts the hard realities of survival and she’s generally comfortable with the hard choices survival might demand of a creature. She’s a wilderness girl and a fighter to her bones. So maybe I could have told her about the prods and saws. But not Nick, who’s just 4.

Anyway, I finally commented that yup, we eat our animals dead, because that’s a better option than eating them alive. The kids chattered about not eating meat anymore, and I should have kept my mouth shut again. But I told them a true thought that I often have, as a meat eater who doesn’t kill her own meat and who’s squeamish about squashing large bugs. I said, If you guys were hungry and there was nothing else for it, I think I would have no problem running out in the back yard and bagging something to feed you, maybe one of those big fat rabbits that raid our gardens every summer. I’d rip its head off with my bare hands if I had to, so that you could eat and live. Jesse chuckled, like “you’re so weird, mom,” and then wondered aloud if people really eat rabbits?

Nick had grown silent suddenly, which is a rare and strange thing indeed. I looked back and was surprised to find that he was nearly in tears. “Mommy, please don’t ever do that to a rabbit, okay? Please don’t.” He sniffed. “I don’t want to eat meat anymore, okay? I just don’t.” He nodded and blinked his soft brown eyes at me, red-rimmed now with the strength of his emotions. That’s my sweet, sweet little boy.

I looked over at Jesse, now in the passenger seat next to me and about to get out of the car to head in to school. “So do you want to skip the burgers and eat something without meat for dinner?”

Jesse was calm and cheerful. She apparently had it all worked out. “Nope. I still want a hamburger. Bye.” And out she jumped.

That’s my badass girl. It’s a good thing Nick has her to rely on.

Grumpy about Alanis Morissette and motherhood

Yesterday I heard “You Oughta Know” on the radio for the first time in ages, while I was driving Nick to school. I’m not a huge Alanis fan but I did like the song and its album, Jagged Little Pill, when it came out. I liked her upbeat girl rage. So I started singing with the chorus. As I head-bobbed and bellowed along, I saw Nick’s furrowed brow in the rear view mirror, and I suddenly realized I wasn’t singing a break up song. I was singing a mommy anthem.

Well I’m here to remind you
Of the mess you left when you went away!
It’s not fair to deny me
Of the cross I bear that you’ve given me
You YOU YOU OUGHTA KNOW!!

No wonder Nick was looking worried. He’s heard me say stuff like this before; how strange to hear it coming out of the radio! And really, other than a few word tweaks to take the creepy Oedipal/Electra edges off, the whole song — with its vaguely insane rage and sense of betrayal — works well for a mommy dealing with the pig sty living room her kids create every day. I could even play the song’s alternative meaning out into future years, when the kids move on to their own mates and I get to stick my nose into that business.

Turn out the lights, point a flashlight up under my chin, and hear me whisper these words: I’ve been sucked into a horrible vortex, where even songs about nasty sex and messy breakups are reduced to parenting metaphors. Somebody help me.

Enjoy this mommy sing-along song, on me.

grumpy about my dance moves

No one should ever have to see me dance, because it’s not a pretty sight. I’m just not good. I’ve observed that Anthony has two strategies for coping with my dancing: (1) look away, or (2) leave the room. But I do love busting a move to good tunes, and Jesse’s got great natural moves. She knows how to shake her ba-donk-a-donk as wildly and blithely as any go-go dancer, so I go at it with her at home. In private. For me, dancing is like pooping or nose-picking. I do those things, and I’m okay with everyone knowing it, but I feel quite strongly that only my immediate family should ever have to witness them.

My lovely friend Paula invited me over to her house this afternoon for lunch and a Wii dance-off, after we dropped our youngest kids off at preschool.  I accepted with mild reservations, because I’m concerned about whether Paula will ever be able to look at me squarely again after seeing me impersonate Beyonce. I ended up having a lot of fun anyway, and the dancing went okay. I tried to do the moves that Wii ordered me to do. On a few occasions, I couldn’t make sense of some complicated pattern, so I just wiggled and flailed for a bit to loosen up my joints and, you know, go with what the music was telling my dancing feet to do. My feeling is that this disturbed and vaguely embarrassed Paula, but she was too polite to say anything, and also I might be projecting.

I wish I knew why I’m such a bad dancer. I took ballet classes as a little girl, and traditional Korean dance. I was able to flip my little Korean fans open and shut on cue, and spin around in pretty circles so my traditional dress flared out just so. I was able to pitter patter about on my little toes. But it all got lost as my ass adhered itself to a piano bench.

It’s amazing to me that, at my age, I’m still so profoundly embarrassed by something as simple as dancing to express my personal enjoyment over a piece of music. I’ve endured some pretty embarrassing moments, mostly involving the years when I was training to be a musician. The most embarrassing occasion of my entire life happened at a summer music camp, when I was in high school. I was supposed to play a solo with the jazz band, for which I was the pianist. But I had never played jazz; I played classical. I didn’t know how to construct or perform a jazz solo. I was utterly clueless. I went home and tried to work something out, and the next day at rehearsal I gave it a go. I was SO BAD that when I was done the entire band had stopped playing and was just staring at me. They looked confused, and shocked. No one even made fun of me or gave me a “good try” chuck on the shoulder. They just felt terrible for me because I was SO BAD. The conductor was a man I had a good rapport with – he also conducted the youth orchestra I played with, so he knew I wasn’t a complete musical boob. He felt so awkward that he never said a word to me about it. He just took away the solo.  It would have been better if my bandmates had made fun of me to my face. Then I could have walked away at least feeling like my horrifyingly awful performance provided some comic relief. (Come to think of it, maybe it did, behind my back.)

I don’t like to talk about that painful experience at all. It was more than 30 years ago, but as I type I’m getting sort of sweaty remembering it. Whenever I think about that day, my head still ducks in shame, the skin on the back of my neck crawls, and I want to cry. It was so humiliating.

I think I would feel the same way about dancing, if anyone ever caught me busting a move in my house. But maybe I shouldn’t. Most children have a knack for dancing freely and without shame, and you can see their individual spirits expressed through their bodies. I would love to feel that way. Plus my kids are really entertained by my ridiculousness, and maybe that’s why I’ve taken to dancing more again. They make requests. “Dance like an Indian!” I stomp my feet and move around like a fancy dancer and sing “hey-yaaah he-eey yaaah” chants. “Dance like a Russian!” I try to do that squat-kick thing, while singing whatever comes to mind that seems Russian-ish (lately it’s been things from Fiddler on the Roof, for some reason). I know I suck, but it’s fun to make the kids laugh.

And did you know that dancing is really, really good for you? I will apparently be less demented when I’m old, if I dance. About a decade ago, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study of “leisure activities” and dementia. The authors concluded that “[d]ancing was the only physical activity associated with a lower risk of dementia.” Whaaaat?? Start dancing, my middle-aged friends, NOW!

I hope Nick and Jesse grow up less dance-repressed than me. I hope they continue to dance freely and joyfully, no matter who’s watching, expressing their own feelings and reactions to whatever inspires their bodies to move. I hope they find someone to show them moves besides me, soon, because otherwise they’ll be in big trouble on the dance floor.