Kissing Frogs

Posted: December 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Discoveries, Firsts, Holidays, Kate's Friends, Kindergarten, Misc Neuroses, Miss Kate | No Comments »

If you’re looking to make a new amphibian friend, come on over to our house. Because this holiday season we’ve opened our home (and yes, our hearts) to Freezey, Room 2′s pet frog.

I love Kate’s school. Really and truly a wicked wicked lot. But man, do they send out a lot of email.

We get a school-wide “Friday Notes” email from the director. The same day we get a classroom newsletter from Kate’s teachers. Then every other day of the week we get anywhere from two to 300 other emails on topics of varying importance and interest from folks ranging from art teachers to the hot lunch lady.

Somewhere on the application we must have forgotten to de-select a box that said our email address would be shared with every school administrator, teacher, and janitor who has a lot to get off their chests.

I’ll have to check, but I’m nearly certain that in small decorative script bordering the school’s crest is the motto, “You can’t ever over-communicate. But we keep trying.”

And in case you missed reading it there, they sent that out in an email too.

A mom from the school recently emailed me about getting our kids together for a play-date. I shot back the response, “We’d love to, but I’m too busy reading email from the school.”

Which I found uproariously funny. Like I sometimes do with things I say.

So anyway, when I got Kate’s class newsletter a couple weeks ago—which actually DOES relay lots of info I DO care about—it fell to its usual low-priority place in my email in-box. Behind more pressing messages like snarky responses from friends to my Facebook status updates.

When I finally did read the newsletter, I saw that the teachers were looking for a home for the class frog. It’s really a wee wee thing. No flabby croaking bull frog. Just a little underwater dweller, no bigger than my thumbnail.

My immediate reaction to this request was something along the lines of, “No way, sucka.”

But on second thought, my frosty heart melted a bit. It might be fun for Kate (and Paigey) to have the thing at home. We’re not going anywhere for the holidays—’staycationing’ as they say. No relatives visiting, elaborate plans, or parties to throw. So why not throw open the doors of the McClusky estate to a small, homeless frog? Perhaps, at the very least, we could afford him a brief respite from the trauma of 25 children constantly tapping on his tiny tank.

Instead, there’d be just two kids doing that.

And two adults.

I asked Kate if she’d like to frog-sit. Suffice it to say, my eardrums bled after experiencing her extremely loud and positive reaction to the possibility.

It was a “first to respond wins” sort of deal. But by this point it was Saturday. The email had gone out the day before. God knows what other parents had jumped at this offer in a more timely manner. We’d likely missed the boat, and I’d be spending the entire two-week break comforting a heartbroken Kate because Freezey the frog was living it up at Gemma or Henry’s house.

Which would, no doubt, set a vicious domino effect into motion resulting in Kate not getting into an Ivy League college.

I mean, not that I ever think about that.

Every three minutes for the remainder of the weekend Kate yanked at my arm and bellowed in my face, “Did Alice email you back?! Do we get to take Freezey? Do we, Mom?!”

It was fun.

Monday morning as we walked towards the schoolyard I prepped Kate for defeat. If it turned out that Freezey was going home with another kid, there would still be things in her life to look forward to.

Upon seeing one of her teachers, Kate screamed and panted out her question in a brink-of-hyperventilation state.

“Freezey…,” the teacher said slowly, like some reality show host announcing the winning contestant, “Is going home with… YOU!”

I nearly vomited, had a migraine, and wept all at once. I was blinded by joy and luck and sweet, beautiful tantrum-avoidance.

So it wasn’t until I got into the car later, watching Kate prance around the playground from friend to friend sharing her giddy news, that I began to fret.

The thing is, Room 2 used to have two frogs. Freezey’s friend (lover? life partner? tank mate?) Cutie Pie, recently, uh, croaked. (Couldn’t resist that one. Sorry.)

Yes, a couple weeks ago I picked up Kate from school and heard all about the funeral, the tears, the card-making, the sharing of feelings about loss. Cutie Pie, she explained, had started to hang out under one of the orange rocks in the tank. Then never came back out.

Some valiant dad did the honors of removing the corpse. Cutie Pie was buried under a tree outside the classroom. “And we had to change the water in the tank after,” Kate said somberly. Cause really, who wants to swim around in Death Funk water?

Kate was especially hard-hit by this development since in a contest to name the frogs, her submission, “Cutie Pie,” won out in the voting. Cutie Pie, by all accounts, was Kate’s first baby.

My God, I thought, leaning my forehead on the steering wheel. If I ask for only one thing in my life, it will be that Freezey doesn’t die on our watch.

Thursday, a day before school even let out, the teacher emailed me. “Could you take Freezey home this afternoon?” Kate, she said, “was enthusiastic about this idea.” (Read: Pestering the poor teacher incessantly.)

I figured, if we are going to kill this animal, why not start a day early.

I drove home that day with Freezey more slowly then I did taking a newborn back from the hospital. (Alas, if only Mark had been available to sit in the back seat with the small frog.) No water sloshed from his tiny plastic home. No apparent trauma was suffered from what must have been violently changing environments—through the kid-packed school hallway, to the gray-rugged Subaru floor, to several different settings in the house while Kate sought out the perfect place to keep him. She was like Thom Filicia in a tizzy to select the ideal nook for some avant-garde Japanese piece d’art. The feng shui apparently had to be impeccable.

As I cooked dinner that night Kate bellowed out status reports from her room. “He looks sad,” she wailed. And, like my dad who has a low threshold for anything bleak or dismal, I called back, “Honey, I’m sure he’s fine! He’s HAPPY! Happy to be with us. Happy to be here for his Christmas vacation.”

But Kate was un-convinced. “He’s sad,” she repeated more quietly, almost to herself. “His eyes… they look sad.”

It wasn’t until I’d slapped dinner on the table, bathed the kids, and was clearing away dishes later (don’t mean to glamorize my life here), that I glanced over at Freezey in his new approved tank spot. (Note: I’m avoiding the term “resting place.”)

I took a couple steps closer. First off, his pale gray skin doesn’t exactly convey the image of robust health. But more than that, what concerned me was that the critter was fully submerged, spindly legs splayed out, and utterly unmoving.

I panicked. HE’S DEAD.

But Kate sashayed in and drawled a hello in his direction. Picking up on my frantic Mama vibe, she reminded me how he got his name. “Mommy,” she said, with the weary exasperation of a child three times her age. “He’s called Freezey because he almost never moves.”

Wonderful. I have to spend the next two weeks tending to an animal who is fervently adored by Kate and 24 of her dearest friends, while he plays dead.

I was jolted into a deep maternal panic, more intense than any fretting I’ve done for my own human offspring. I considered emailing the teachers to see how they manage to ascertain Freezey’s  alive-ness. But with 25 human five-year-olds in the room, I decided it probably wasn’t a priority for them.

In the ensuing days I’ve felt like Shirley McLaine in the opening scene of Terms of Endearment, convinced her sleeping baby’s not breathing. She shakes the infant out of a peaceful sleep to a full-bore wail, breathes a sigh of relief and says, ‘That’s better.”

If only I could hold a wee mirror up to Freezey’s mouth to be assured of his breathing. Unfortunately, that trick won’t work in an underwater setting.

At any rate, it turns out that having 1.5 ounces of amphibian around the house has had a happy impact on the place. Kate and Paige came home from a holiday party Friday and held the spoils from their stockings up to Freezey’s tank. They waved candy canes in front of the glass, and relayed the thrilling details of their day, hoping to gain Freezey’s barely-conscious approval. They were like Kim Kardashian vamping outfits in the Prada dressing room for the admiration of the ambivalent salesperson.

Last night Kate strained to stay awake until Mark returned from his work trip. Not to lay eyes on her sorely missed father, but “to introduce him to Freezey.” When it became clear she might fall asleep before that was possible, I had to vow I wouldn’t let Mark near the amphibian sanctuary, so Kate could do The Reveal in the morning.

No doubt sealing our fate for a brutally early wake-up call.

But despite that I’m glad I ignored my initial impulse to avoid temporary custody of another living being—albeit a small caged one that only requires feeding twice a week. Even though this could be a terrifying precedence-setting act, one that lays the groundwork for years of hamster, snake, and hermit crab classroom critters coming home with us at holidays and summer breaks—so be it. We’re just a few days in and Freezey’s already served up some sweet moments of childhood glee.

I’m also coming around to the little guy (gal?) myself.

And we haven’t even fed him yet! A prospect Kate says involves pellets that are “really stinky” and requires one to “wash hands really well after.” I can already picture Paige feeding her dolls and lamby pretend food pellets. That is, if she doesn’t decide to stick a candy cane inside Freezey’s tank first.

Yesterday, as I cleared the breakfast dishes from the table, I paused by Casa La Freezey to take a peek at my new frozen friend. He was facing outward, which I took as a thrilling sign of life, since at Lights Out the night before his typical dead-man’s-float position was facing the wall. From this new angle I was able to look at his face for the first time. And I nearly dropped a plate of scrambled eggs when I saw that his eyes really DO look sad.

So now, amidst last-minute shopping, holiday baking, and keeping the kids entertained while school’s out, I’m all hopped up on finding some way to pull my new chum Freezey out of his glum froggy funk.

I wonder how the school will feel about us taking home one frog, and bringing back two.

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Honk If You Have a Bully

Posted: November 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Firsts, Husbandry, Kate's Friends, Kindergarten, Manners, Misc Neuroses, Miss Kate, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Parenting, Preschool, Sisters, Travel | 7 Comments »

Do they make “My kid’s a bully at Greenwood Elementary School!” bumper stickers? I’m guessing not.

It’s hardly the kind of thing you want to publicize. But if more people ‘fessed up about their kids’ unkind-to-others behavior, those of us who are wrangling with this unsavory stuff would feel so much less alone. Less freakish. Less sympathetic to people like, say, Jeffrey Dahmer’s mom.

I actually read a poll in a Motherboard newsletter about bullying. 71% of mothers said their kid had been bullied, but even more moms said their kid had never BEEN a bully. So who’s doing all that bullying then?

Well, now I know: It’s my daughter Kate.

Okay, so maybe it’s a bit soon to hang the bully mantel on her. But in my most neurotic Mama heart I just want to brace for the worst case scenario.

I was on a plane to New York. Yes, New Yawk Cit-ay! Blissfully alone. No diapers to change in a cramped cabin bathroom. No restless children to pacify with a constant stream of new toys and snacks. No dual car seats, immense roller bag, double stroller, and two overtired children to maneuver through endless airport hallways.

In other words, by virtue of simply being airborne alone–People magazine and novel in hand, and free to nap at will–I was already deep into my vacation.

But it was too good to be true. Because when the plane landed and I texted Mark to report my safe arrival, seconds later my phone rang. It was him, calling from home in the middle of the day.

“What’re you doing at home?” I asked nervously. This couldn’t be good.

“Well, I got a call from the school that I had to come pick Kate up. That she’d hit some other kids.”


My feel-good glow turned instantly to a churning stomachache.

“I considered not telling you ’til after the weekend,” he went on. (This getaway was my treat for being the On Duty parent when Mark traveled to exotic ports for work this summer.) “But I didn’t know who else I should tell about it. And I had to talk to someone.”

Why, I wondered, hadn’t he enlisted the ear of an imaginary friend?

Kate’s hitting episode that day was actually her third strike. She’d poked someone, pulled another kid’s hair, and did some other swatting or shoving, and right on the heels of her visit to the principal’s office. Oy.

And so, poor Mark got a call during a meeting with his two bosses (of course). He muttered apologies for his sudden need dash out the door because his five-year-old got kicked out of kindergarten for the day.

Good times.

As I yanked my bag from the overhead compartment and walked off the plane, my cell phone wedged between my ear and shoulder, I outlined my anxieties to Mark.

“So what if this is the first glimpse we’re getting of Kate developing into a sociopathic adult?” I panted. “I mean, you haven’t noticed that she’s been killing squirrels in the back yard with sticks or anything, have you?”

My mind raced. “But really—oh God—what if her teachers don’t like her now?” The one thing worse than being a serial killer in my mind? Being UNLIKED. This thought made me stop to lean against the wall en route to Baggage Claim. “Oh shit. What if she’s turned into the problem child they don’t want to deal with? Did it seem that way when you talked to them?”

Mark started talking me down off an emotional ledge—likely regretting at that point that I was the person he chose to share this news with. He tossed out some theories. Kate’s been super tired after school. The day at kindergarten day is longer and requires more focus than her short playful stints in preschool. Maybe that’s catching up with her? Making her grumpy and irrational? Also Paigey has been prone to hitting lately—a more age-appropriate behavior for a two-year-old, no doubt. But maybe Kate is somehow passing that forward?

This got me thinking. My sister Ellen tied a nun to a tree with a jump rope when she was in Catholic school. Hell, we LOVE that story in my family. And I’m sure that got her kicked out of school for the day. Maybe even a week! And dare I admit to my own behavior in Miss Hancock’s classroom? Bonnie Usher grabbed an eraser I wanted so I leaned over and bit her arm. (She was clearly askin’ for it.)

I mean, these kinds of things are garden variety childhood offenses, right? Ellen and I have never been incarcerated. I’d even go so far as to say we’re both highly-functioning members of society.

But by the time I was in the cab watching a gray day in Queens whiz past the window, my attempt at sweeping The Hitting under the carpet turned on me. And I did what nearly every mother tends to do: wracked my brain for what it was that I’D done to bring this all about.

It didn’t take long to decide that Kate’s playground furor was due to the very trip I was on. Brought about by my selfishness for wanting to be away alone for three nights. Plus, it was just days after another overnight trip I’d taken for work.

It was my fault entirely.

It’s been two weeks now since this all went down. And I can happily report that Kate has made no additional assaults on her peers. A feat that, after her first day back in school after The Incident, she felt was worthy of a gift.

“I didn’t hit anyone today!” she cheerfully reported as she climbed into the car. “So can you get me that ice cream maker toy that I saw on TV?”

Uh, you don’t get a prize for *not* whacking your friends upside the head, kiddo. Puh-leez.

Now most mortal Mamas would just let this go now, right? Turn their attention to other anxieties. But Kate’s parent-teacher conference rolled around a week or so later. Even though it was packed with praise for things like being “a promising mathematician” (Mark’s genes), a precocious communicator, and an all-around smart gal, I found I was clinging to the Hitting. So in the course of our chat with the teacher, I somehow resuscitated a long-dormant anxiety I thought—or hoped—I’d put to rest.

Did we send Kate to Kindergarten too soon?

Everyone is holding kids—sure, mostly boys—back these days. Six-year-olds are as common in kindergartens as lice. Not to mention five-year-olds. Which makes Miss Kate, who started the year off at age four, a wee one in her class.

In terms of book learnin’ the girl’s ready to roll. But is she out of her league in terms of emotional development and social composure?

I flip-flopped wildly on this issue last year. Each time lecturing Mark on the merits of what I was sure was my final decision. Another year of preschool will buy us more time with her before she’s off to college. It’s settled! But then her interest in writing and reading would make me certain that more preschool would bore her. A day later a friend would extol the merits of Pre-K programs and I’d be on the phone with the preschool begging for her spot back.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Ultimately the three schools that assessed her all thought she was ready. So we pulled the trigger.

During Kate’s conference I started speculating madly on this issue. (I’d forgotten how good I was at it.) I wanted her teacher to pat my hand and assure me we made the right decision. And in subtle ways she kinda did—saying Kate is intellectually in line with her classmates, and behavioral issues like hitting can crop up in the first six weeks of school. But she didn’t take me by the shoulders and scream this into my face, which was apparently required to really convince me.

So on the drive home Mark—bless his heart—tried talking me off the ledge again. He’s long felt confident that Kate was ready for kindergarten. And even though The Hitting Thing rocked his world too, the fact that it was now ricocheting in my mind to other places, seemed to fortify his hunch that it would all be okay.

After reading Halloween books to a sweet sleepy Kate that night, I looked at her as I closed her door and had a Mama moment. I couldn’t imagine her being any more perfect. I crawled into my own bed and wondered what I’d think if we had held her back, but she still did something like hit another kid. What excuses would we have then? What could I beat myself up about then?

Maybe that champion spouse of mine was right. Once I dove past that thick outer layer of self-doubt and frenzied Mama worry, I found that I arrived at a more peaceful place. There I let all the dramatic self-flagellation slip away, took a cleansing breath, and had a clear calm thought that sometimes these things just happen. And in kindergarten, along with learning to read and to count to ten in Spanish, Kate’ll also learn how to control her emotions, and how to be a better friend.

She will survive Kindergarten. She’ll move past The Hitting until it’s some little incident we—and hopefully her teachers—barely remember. And, God willing, she won’t chop people up as an adult and store their body parts in chest freezers.

At least, I really really hope not.


Speaking with the Fairies

Posted: October 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Bad Mom Moves, Birthdays, City Livin', Firsts, Friends and Strangers, Husbandry, Kate's Friends, Milestones, Miss Kate, Parenting | Tags: | 3 Comments »

I vowed to never be a pony-renting birthday party mom. No juggling clowns, jumpy houses, or elaborate expensive goody bags. I decided some time ago that simple sweet parties were the key to raising my kids all wholesome and well-balanced.

Plus, I figured hype-free parties would be less stressful.

But then last year, I was overwhelmed—nay, terrified—by the prospect of entertaining a slew of raucous four-year-olds in our small back yard. (Yes, the guest list grossly exceeded my long-ago best laid plans for wee intimate birthdays.). So I rented a jumpy house. A big princessy pink castle jumpy house.

And then this year, well this year a meltdown at California Pizza Kitchen informed it all. I swear we don’t go there very often, but for some reason it’s a blog-worthy spot.

So there we were, in our CPK booth, awaiting our CPK personal pizzas and my half Waldorf, and Kate mentioned how super duper wicked excited she was for her friend Casey’s party. The party wherein a fairy—a real live bee-ooooo-tiful fairy with wings and a flower crown and everything—was going to not only paint faces and make balloon animals, but do a magic show too.

Kate’s anticipation for this party was so intense I imagined her pituitary gland transmitting jolts of unicorn hallucinations throughout her system. For weeks she was bathed in a heroin-high haze of pixie dust, and mind-numbing glee at the thought of a corner slice of cake with a blue frosting rose.

Yeah, so she was excited.

And then Mark laid it on her. Right there in our CPK booth. “Actually, honey, you know how we decided to go visit Aunt Judy? Well, it turns out we’re going to be in Palm Springs for Casey’s party.” And just to be sure his dire message was clear he added, “So you won’t get to go to the party after all.”

At which point Kate clenched both sides of her head in an Edward Monk-ian scream and began what was to be a long, loud, and active grieving period.

Even though Kate’s ensuing hunger strike and black armband seemed like extreme expressions of parental condemnation, I did feel bad. We had told her we were going to the party. I did read her the invitation daily (at her request) until she could recite it from memory. (“Be sure to arrive by 12:30 when the magic will begin!”) And I was a coward, putting off telling her myself so Mark had to share the bad news.

So I did what any mother who is heartbroken about her child’s heartbreak does. I called Casey’s mom to find out how to rent a fairy.

She gave me the straight scoop. “What I liked about these fairies,” she said, “is that they’re not Disney characters.”

“Oh good. That’s good!” I said. I was taking notes like a first-year law student.

“And communicating with them is interesting,” she added. But I was too busy scribbling down the URL she gave me, like some junkie with a line on a dealer, to take much note of anything else she said.

It was a month before Kate’s birthday. “Oh Kate,” I thought, with an aren’t-I-clever Hollywood-grade chuckle. “You WILL get your fairy.”

But seconds later on the website, my scheming laughter turned to perverse fascination. This was no two-bit get-a-fairy-and-a-jumpy-house combination party pack kinda place. This was all fairies. Serious fairies. With serious fairy names, like Miss Violet and Miss Acorn. There were gauzy sun-drenched photos of each one wearing wings, flower-wreath halos, and shimmery flowing dresses. They had long wavy hair cascading around their shoulders like some Vidal Sassoon Shampoo wet dream.  They were seated on mossy rocks at river’s edges and in flower filled meadows. One super hot blond was even nuzzling a real white bunny rabbit.

It was intense. It was compelling. It was kinda pervy.

It was definitely NOT Disney.

Clicking on each fairy’s main photo took me to a bio page with more glossy pics and background info on each gal. Things like “she came to our family in a whirl of sparkle,” (our family?!) “she  likes to sing songs way high up in the tree tops to the squirrels,” and other ‘qualifications’ like being a clown college grad or former nanny.

Anyway, I couldn’t porn out on the whole thing without getting my hubbie in on it. Besides, it had been seven minutes since I’d called Mark at his office.

“Okay so check this site out,” I said giving him the URL. “I feel like I’m hiring a call girl.”

After we hung up I imagined a bunch of guys in Mark’s office crowding behind his desk, obsessing over the site over his shoulder.

As for me, back at the house, I found I was a bit gun-shy about calling them. Who should I say I wanted? Did I go for experience or looks? And could the acorn fairy face-paint anything besides the poorly-rendered Blues Clues dog that appeared in one picture?

Plus, for the trifecta—magic show, face-painting, and “balloon twisting” (I guess that extends beyond just animals)—it was stupidly expensive. Fairies, it turns out, don’t come cheap.

But my thoughts of how excited Kate’d be—and what the hell I’d do with twenty-some sugar-crazed kids on my own—spurned me on. So I dialed.

No answer. The voice on the answering machine was shrill—a woman intentionally making her voice high-pitched and sing-songy, achieving an effect best described as demented. Her outgoing message mentioned something about her “being in a goblin class until two o’clock.” (Now does Goblin 101 meet on Tuesday-Thursdays? Or is it a Monday-Wednesday-Friday class?)

At any rate, I managed to leave a message using my very own voice. I didn’t get reeled into that thing where someone talks with a drawl and you talk back with one even though you were raised in Indiana.

The next day, as I walked in the door from somewhere and unburdened myself of heavy children and whining grocery bags, I hit play on the machine. “Why hello-ooo, Kristen!” the munchkin-woman voice trilled out. ” It’s Trixie! Why I was so verrrrry happy to get your call. Hoo-ray! But I guess I’ve missed you. Tee hee hee!”

I quickly hit Stop before Kate heard. And before I had to hear any more.

Eventually, after a voicemail exchange that included a glass-shatteringly shrill “Tag! Yoooou’re it!” message, Trixie (who I thought of as the madam of the fairies) and I reverted to email. But even there, the messages I received were rife with “[smile]” and “[wink!].”

I guess that’s just how fairies communicate. Constant reminders of their cuteness, wee-ness and girlishness. As if we could ever forget.

Several laps into this surreal communication sworl I finally received some actual helpful information. Yes there was a fairy who could work at our party. Just one fairy was left for hire that day.

Of course, I ran to the website to check her out. I was both crestfallen and unsurprised to see that the fairy who was free, the last puppy of the litter, the last-ditch consolation-prize party nymph, was—okay so it might sound kinda mean—but she was by far the uncute-est of the fairies. Maybe even a bit kinda “homely,” as my mother would say.

I was dismayed. I called Mark. Our child’s fifth-birthday fairy call girl was the bottom of the woodland barrel.

Damn me and my procrastination! Of course all the more organized mothers snatched up all the cute sexy fairies first. Poor Kate and her friends would be doing that thing you do when you see an ugly baby. Wanting nothing more than to say, “She’s beautiful!” but having to drum up alternate compliments. “Your wings, Miss Mushroom! Why, they are so long and lustrous!” “Your eflin shoes! How they curl so at the toes!”

But a day or two into sharing my frumpy fairy misery with a few friends, I started to come around. “Maybe,” I said to an amiga, lounging in the sun at her swim club, “Maybe Miss Mushroom will teach the girls that knowledge of math and science will get them further in life than a dewy complexion and a button nose? Or—you don’t have to be cute to make sound investment choices? And if you fling around enough glitter fairy dust, people won’t be able to really see you anyway!”

I was starting to feel preemptively defensive and protective of Miss Mushroom. By the end of the week I’d transformed my mental picture of her from the fugly fairy to an up-and-coming feminist intellectual. Like some young Simone de Beauvoir or thick-calved Hillary Clinton. I was hatching plans to take her into our home, set her up in the downstairs bedroom. We’d help her pay her way through Berkeley so she could quit the fairy gig once and for all. We’d emancipate her from her evil-voiced madam, Trixie. She’d become a beloved family member, a big sister and role model to the girls.

A couple days before the party I was slopping the kids’ dinner on plastic plates, while swilling a glass of wine. It was that early evening chaotic hell-realm time of day when everyone’s cranky, fried, and hungry. The phone rang.

“Hey, is this Kristen?”


“Oh hey, it’s Miss Mushroom,” the woman said.

I gasped! After only communicating with her madam, after talking her up for weeks to Kate, it was her. Miss Mushroom. In the telephonic flesh!

But what shocked me as much as her sudden presence on the phone line was her voice. It was kinda gravelly. I mean, not like Marge Simpson’s chain-smokin’ sisters or anything. But definitely no affected lilting fairy voice. Like not even trying a little tiny bit to sound like she could fly, or at least heal wounded wildlife.

“Yeah so I just wanted to run through the details of the party and stuff,” she said, interrupting my thoughts. “Turns out I’m not that far from you, which is cool.”

She was like some urban hipster fairy.

I felt a bit sad, somewhat let down as I ran through the “in our backyard” “eleven o’clock” “magic show first, then face-painting” details. I realized I was missing the magic. The magic I’d hated. The fake fake fairy-voiced magic.

But not long after hanging up I’d managed to shake it off. Despite how she came across on the phone, one look at her gossamer wings and the kids would be smitten. (And they were.) And the whole reason I hired Miss Mushroom was to avoid having to entertain the teeming throng of kids myself.

Besides, next year when I revert to the “small picnic in the park with a few close friends” I won’t have to worry about these things. I mean, you know, I’ll do the small picnic thing, or buckle again and go the pony-ride rental route.

Only time will tell.


The Bristol Two-Step

Posted: February 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Daddio, Eating Out, Food, Kate's Friends, Little Rhody, Miss Kate, Mom, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Travel | 1 Comment »

We were in the library, so I decided to let out a blood-curdling scream.

I’d been chatting with the librarian. There are two gray-haired ones who still serve there—at my hometown bibliotheque—since back when I was a kid. I’d mentioned that to one of them once, thinking we might have a nice moment. Instead she looked at me like she’d sucked a lemon.

But yesterday I took a chance and mentioned to Kate as we were checking out books, “The woman who is helping us was the librarian when I was a girl.” And, thankfully, she looked up and smiled.

And then we did the Who Are You? Bristol Two-Step. Which is to say she asked me what my name was and who my parents are. And when I told her she said, “Oh sure” then listed off the names of all the streets we ever lived on in town. “Now your mom was on Hope for a long time, then she moved to Beach, right?”

“Your mother,” she said, hunched over the desk leaning towards me. “Her and my friend Dottie DeRosa, those two were out in their gardens at the very first signs of spring. We’d say the ground is still frozen, but there’s Vicki out there gardening.”

I admit my awareness of the girls’ whereabouts had faltered a bit. I was drawn in by the kindly gray-haired librarian. I wanted to hear more funny little stories about my mom. But before I could coax more out of her, I looked up to see Paige step into the empty elevator, and the door start to close.

PAAAAAAAAAAAIGE!” I bellowed, as I did a sideways-flying Superman-type lunge for the door. I wedged my hand in without a second to spare. Blessedly the door lurched back open. Paige was standing inside smiling, as I skidded into her like home base.

After that wake-the-dead Mama shriek, those librarians should have no trouble remembering me the next time I drop in.

At dinner last night, at my favorite chicken parm place, a couple walked in and sat at the table next to us. Some sort of comment on Paigey’s ability to pack away the pasta ensued. Then my father held out his hand towards the man, but squinted by way of saying he didn’t remember his name. Cue the Bristol Two-Step.

“Oh yes,” my father said, hearing the guy owns the photo shop in town. “You live on Court Street! My cousin Jimmy Rennetti used to own that house.”

There have to be a million annoying things about the lack of anonymity living in a small town. But this absurd form of interconnectedness is so extreme, is such a weird form of sport, it’s brilliantly entertaining. At least for someone who only lives it for a week or two every year. Despite the fact that I’ve been away for so long, I love that I still have enough hometown equity to play a fair game myself.

At the end of our meal a little girl wandered over to say hi to Kate, her mom trailing behind her. Kate, demonically excited to be in possession of a piece of take-out chocolate cake, was disinterested in the girl’s attention. So I tried to jump-start their conversation.

“Are you in kindergarten, honey? Where do you go to school?”

When she responded “Rockwell,” my own K through third-grade alma mater, I nearly squealed with glee. I forget sometimes when I’m in Rhode Island, and get excited to see someone wearing a RISD sweatshirt. Or I’ll be driving along, then perk up at the sight of an Ocean State license plate.

Proof of my spaciness perhaps. But also that I’m more used to home being a place where I’m not. My default setting is that any Rhode Islandisms I come across must be far-flung artifacts that’ve managed to make their way West. Like me.

At any rate, Kate’s would-be friend didn’t find my enthusiasm about Rockwell far-fetched. “Did you have Miss Sousa too?” she asked, wide-eyed.

Aw, honey. The thing is, I probably did have a Miss Sousa, but a very different one than yours.

There’s a strong tug of temptation to run around and see a ton of people while I’m here, to schedule non-stop things to do. Instead I’m trying to melt into the scenery. I’ve already handed over highlighting my hair to a chap in Newport who did a bang-up job for—get this—$50! And aside from a grandparent-sponsored jaunt to the toy store for Valentine’s Day, and dinner out for Dad’s birthday, the only plans we have are to go to story time at the library.

We’re meeting Kate’s new friend there. Which is great since I never got a chance to ask her what street she lives on, or who her teachers were at preschool.

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I Love You, I Love You Not…

Posted: December 14th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Blogging, California, City Livin', Friends and Strangers, Holidays, Husbandry, Kate's Friends, Miss Kate, Mom, Other Mothers, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Parenting | 2 Comments »

There’s been a cold snap here. Gray skies, biting winds. The children of the Bay Area have insufficiently-warm outerwear, and their parents are all thin-blooded wimps. During the day when we might normally be at the park, or on the front porch, or cruising around the neighborhood on bikes, or strollers, or the red wagon, we’ve been stuck inside, hiding from the cold.

I’ve loved it.

The girls and I have spent such sweet happy afternoons snugged up indoors. We’ve cooked elaborate feasts with wooden toy food, conducted tea parties with real cinnamon-laden victuals, and read countless books about Christmas. It’s been so freeing knowing that getting out of the house just isn’t an option. Usually once Paige wakes from her nap I’m on a madwoman’s mission to get everyone’s shoes on and diapers changed and bike helmets secured. Channeling my mother I bellow the rallying cry, “It’s a beautiful sunny day! Let’s get out of this house!” I’m a self-professed fresh air fetishist.

But lately we’ve been padding around in slippers. Assembling puzzles. Doing projects with Popsicle sticks. Digging to the back of the closet and finding long-neglected toys that the girls delight in reacquainting themselves with. And a couple times this sugar-stingy Mama has even thrown caution to the wind and whipped up a pot of hot chocolate.

All that plus streaming Pandora Christmas carols. Now this is living!

During one of these happy floor-dwelling moments, when Dr. Kate and I were injecting Paige with some pretend inoculation or other, I thought about our warm weather life. I dug up the following post, which I’d written last year (for pay!) for a wine company blog. The blog—which several woman across the country were hired to contribute to—sadly never emerged beyond the marketing firm’s conference rooms.

Aside from the contrast it shows to our current indoor existences at Camp McClusky, the post brought to life how mercurial my love for this city is. One minute I can’t imagine living anywhere else, and the next I’m calling Mark at his office to announce we are packing up and moving to a small town. Somewhere. Anywhere. Just not HERE.

I’m like a dramatic child lying in the grass plucking daisy petals. “I love you. I love you not….” The only difference being I’m not talking about a youthful crush, something it’s okay to be fickle about. In this case it’s where my husband, daughters and I live. My “I love you not” episodes have the ability to rock other people’s worlds much more intensely.

But today? This morning I’m still reveling in a lovely neighborhood party from last night. This afternoon the Mama Posse is taking our older kids to San Fran to see The Velveteen Rabbit, and there are cookies to bake before then.  I’m filled to the gills with the holiday spirit.

I’ve got love for all people, all places. Even Oakland.

So, despite the fact that our front porch has just been functioning as a pass-through these days, this old never-posted post still captures my current emotional reading on our little corner of the world.

The View from the Front Porch

This is the story about a woman in a strange city, with a new baby, and how a bottle of wine saved her. Or as it were, saved me.

But before we get to the wine, let me back up a bit.

At the time I was managing a complex jumble of major life changes. Like some guy in a lumberjack contest running to keep his balance on a log so he won’t fall in the water.

I was so busy wrangling with it all that I didn’t fully realize how much of it there was, until a few different friends commented on my excess of Major Life Stressors. Most people, they all said, could only handle two of those doozies at once. But there I was exceeding that quota. As if I had any choice.

And while I’m at it, what up with that whole “two big life stressors” urban-legend-like theory? It seems like one of those Ann Landers quizzes that circulated in high school. (You know, the one where your final score revealed if you were a slut or not?) In this case I picture it as being an actual list of Life’s Hugest Stress Triggers with checkboxes next to them. And the smart mortals only check two at a time.

Aaaaanyway, where was I? Exceeding my stress quota. Okay, so what I had going on was having just moved to a new city—just over the bridge from where I’d lived for 12 years, but still. Devoid of local friends and the ever-presence of my lived-just-five-blocks-away sister. It felt like worlds away. I feared I’d be offering monetary incentives to get our city friends to ever visit.

Other stressors: I’d taken an indefinite hiatus from my maniacal love-hate time-sucking career. I was mourning my mother’s recent death. And I just had my first baby.

Oh, and did I mention I’m not really one for change?

I handled it all swimmingly. Which is to say I nearly refused to conduct commerce in Oakland, driving to San Francisco with my dry cleaning and sometimes even to grocery shop. I seethed every time my sister asked about traffic before deciding to come by. And I rejected the social value of neighbors as friends since, well, they lived in Oakland. They were Oakland people and I, well, I was from San Francisco. And likely just passing through.

But thank God for sidewalks. Where our new neighbors imposed their friendliness upon us despite my cynicism and Urban Girl guard being up. A friendly wave from the lady across the street when I grabbed the morning paper drove me back in the house ranting, “What’s up with her? Does she stand there all day waiting to pounce on people with her chirpy hellos?”

I was resistant. But even I can be worn down.

Because when you are tired, and smattered in spit-up, and have already called your husband’s office seven times by noon desperate for adult conversation, even the freaky old neighbor ladies and their little yapping rat dogs start seeming kinda nice.

Oddly, the women my age—especially the mothers—I held further at bay. With their older children, I considered them to be professionals at the mom thing, where I felt like a newbie, a maternal imposter.

It wasn’t until one evening when a random sidewalk chat stretched out, and seemed silly to continue just standing there, that I invited one of those moms to take a seat on my front porch. And like some bad movie montage, where the calendar pages flip to show time passage, eventually we’d see each other, sit longer, chat more, pass off outgrown kid clothes, and watch as the hip-held babies interacted. It wasn’t until one evening—both bushed from grueling kid-tending and diving deeper into some conversation or other, that I offered up a glass of wine.

“Well,” she said, performing an etiquette dance that’d do her mother proud, “I don’t want to put you to any trouble… Do you have anything that’s open?”

“Yes!” I yelped, over-eagerly, thrilled by the prospect of an impromptu happy hour, a new friend to talk to while the babies lolled contentedly on a blanket by our feet. “I have something we opened last night,” I said, trying to tone down the mania in my voice. “No problem at all.”

At which point I went into the house, grabbed a bottle of chard from the fridge, opened it, dumped a bit in the sink, grabbed two glasses, and waltzed back out to the porch.

Sometimes you don’t know which cork it is that you should hold onto—which bottle of wine will mark something worthy of a saved-cork tribute. In retrospect I wish I had that one now.

It’s three years and another baby later. I can’t count the number of front porch hangouts I’ve hosted on the fly—or with much-anticipated planning—since that first one.

Nor can I count the number of times that after calling Mark to lament that maybe this wasn’t working (this me staying home with the kids thing), maybe I needed to go back to work, get the girls a nanny—that he’d come home a few hours later, to find me commandeering the front lawn sprinkler for a gaggle of sopping screaming kids. And Jennifer, and maybe Bob from down the block who works from home, or really any number of other stopped-by-on-their-way-past neighbors would be on the lawn or perched by the porch table, which was loaded with a hodge-podge of kid and adult-friendly snacks, sippy cups, and a bottle of unapologetically opened-just-for-the-occasion wine.

And here Mark walks into the scene, expecting to find me pouting inside, resentfully changing a diaper or playing my fourth game of Chutes and Ladders, but instead I’m half-soaked and laughing, on a totally different plane from the frustration and self-pity of just hours before. But, sweetheart that he is, he never calls me on it. He just greets the gang, goes in the house, drops his lap top bag and grabs a wine glass for himself.

Thank you thank you Universe for getting me past that hard lonely sad first chunk of time here. Thank you neighbors for not giving up on me. Thank you dear daughters for coming along on the ride where I figured out that being a mother doesn’t mean leaving all of person I used to be behind—that I can be responsible and grown-up and still have some fun.

To my beautiful family, my great city, and my groovy little street of friends—I raise my glass to you.

I think I finally feel like I’m from Oakland.


Festival of Four-ness

Posted: September 21st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Daddio, Husbandry, Kate's Friends, Manners, Miss Kate, Mom, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Parenting, Walking | 2 Comments »

I’m not going to lie. I spent a lot of time crying by the clothesline at the birthday parties of my youth.

Well, not A LOT of time, and not at other people’s parties. Just some intermittent spells at my own parties, when things were happening like other kids were winning the games, or someone else got the big pink frosting rose (even though I’d already been given the bigger pinker one).

I mean, I was THE BIRTHDAY GIRL. Did that not count for anything? In my childhood concept of that term all would bow down before me, I’d miraculously (blindly) reunite the donkey with it’s tail, and Lynn Froncillo wouldn’t show up in a dress that was prettier than mine.

I remember my mother or dad coming over to pry me away from my clothesline-clinging Zone of Despair, but in that way that you have a memory that’s a photo, not a video. I can picture them with me, but hell if I remember what they said to get me to pull it together enough to re-enter the party mix.

So Friday night, the eve of Kate’s big birthday throw-down, I went into her room as Mark was about to read her bedtime stories. Channeling my best inner June Cleaver, I smoothed my skirt, propped myself at the edge of her bed, and serenely said, “I’d like to talk to you a bit about your party tomorrow, Kate.”

I went on to say that sometimes parties can be disappointing. Sometimes your friends don’t do what you wanted them to, or don’t come when they said they would, or don’t sit at the place with the pink paper plate even though they’re a girl and shouldn’t be sitting at the place with the green paper plate. I said that sometimes you get presents you don’t like, or want, or already have, but you still have to be polite and say thank you.

And just when I felt I was getting warmed up and was awash in my own brilliant sage mothering I see Mark dragging his finger across his neck, eyes popping.

Turns out I’d beaten away at my points somewhat excessively, leaving them in tatters like some ravaged, child-attacked pinata.

Well, either all my blather worked, or I never even needed to go there. The party was a blast. No tantrums, no tears, no jumpy house injuries, and no four-year-olds in the liquor cabinet. Kate and the guests appeared to actually–gasp!–have fun! What’s weirder is, Mark and I did too.

The worst behavior the birthday girl displayed was a repeated refusal to open the present her cousin so sweetly followed her around with, holding out to her. Well, that and her lack of interest in digging into gift bags after skimming off the first item. (Note to self: Develop bedtime tutorial on deep-diving into gift bags, with follow-up lecture on expressing appreciation for even the bottom-most layer of presentry.)

The gaybors brought Kate a gift they’d been billing for days as “the gayest gift EVER.” When she opened the stuffed Yorkie in it’s pink-and-purple leopardskin and gold patent leather carrying tote (replete with collar, leash, and hair accessories) she squealed and ran into the house to stow it safely away from potentially-thieving guests.

Speaking of gay men, the best gift we got this weekend is that Paigey started cruising! No, no, not trolling around public parks for action… She’s walking by holding onto the couch and the coffee table! She’s making her way across the house by leaning against the toy shopping cart!

Our little lax-muscled toddler is finally gaining the fortitude of body and spirit she needs to get ambulatory. If she continues to progress at this pace, I’m hopeful we’ll be hosting another party quite soon, the promised She’s Finally Frickin’ Walking! champagne-drenched Paigey-fest.

Anyway, back to Kate’s festival of four-ness. Once all the kids were dragged home for naps and low-blood-sugar transfusions, some of the neighbs stuck around under the pink mesh tea party tent. It was lovely. We indulged in more daytime beer drinking, cupcake eating, and general catching up. There was even an engagement story to savor.

I’m so grateful the party was a hit, and that unlike her dramatic mother, Kate didn’t let the less-than-perfect moments prevent her from enjoying the day. But I can’t help but wonder if it all went off like it did because we don’t even have a clothesline.


Remember the Lake

Posted: September 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: College, Doctors, Drink, Friends and Strangers, Husbandry, Kate's Friends, Miss Kate, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Summer, Travel | 4 Comments »

On our way through Marin County—heading towards beaches, hiking, and the Redwoods—we pass by a dumpy roadside motel. The Fountain Motel.

It’s where my mother, my sister Marie, and I once stayed when I was a kid. A dreary gray box of a place, up on the main road, with a requisite off-kilter cement fountain plopped out in front.

So when Mark’s ‘rents were here last week, we were stuck in a good-weather weekend traffic snarl, right in front of said motel. Admitting this was the site of a bygone Bruno vacation—something I’m often compelled to do, despite the shame of it—no doubt makes one wonder whether it was a voluntary vacation. Or if maybe we were on the lam. Hiding out from Interpol. Waiting out time until we got our Witness Protection Program permanent digs.

Or, maybe back then it was nice? Or at least nice-ish? Or maybe at least clean, and a good value?

All I remember about it was that the bedspreads were kinda flashy…

At any rate, it’s odd having a reminder from a childhood trip so close by. Maybe if my mother would’ve known that someday I’d settle in the Bay Area, and that for some unGodly reason that motel would still be standing and in business, she’d have opted for someplace clean AND cute.

Aside from that trip (and an admittedly fabulous tour of Europe), I can’t remember many vacations I took as a kid. I mean, I do have an especially horrible memory. But I can’t help by think that parents put a lot of planning, energy, and moolah into family outings that end up passing through the kids like so much Mexican drinking water.

For my girls, I think I’ve cracked the code to making vacations memorable. The way to hold onto something is to do it over and over and over again, right? Right! Which is why I’ve decided we’re inviting ourselves to spend Labor Days from here on out with some of Mark college friends, at their lake house in Minnesota.

The cabin’s a two-hour drive from Minneapolis, and the perfect blend of charming simplicity meets dazzling natural beauty. It’s feet from the lake. And one whole side of it is windows. So even when you’re inside, say, lying on the couch with a book and a beer, you still feel like you’re soaking up the great outdoors.

I have another annual trip in my past. A now-bygone camping trip—okay, okay, it was at a hippie music festival—up in Humboldt County. I went maybe six times—or eight?—with a big group of old Bay Area friends.

Now, the downfall of vacationing in the same place every year with the same group of people is the exhaustive rehashing and glorified storytelling that takes place about years past. “Remember in ’99 when Al brought that blender with a rip-cord starter engine, and decided to make margaritas at the crowded campsite at 3AM? I thought those guys from Oregon were going to kill him!”

Ah, Al.

Well, we’re finally settling in back home after our new-fangled family-style annual lake house vacation. It was Kate’s second Labor Day weekend on Lone Lake. (She couldn’t remember the first one. My genes.) Last time Paigey was with us too, but in utero.

Lest any of this year’s highlights be forgotten, I’m capturing some here. I figure we can just print this out and read from it around the campfire next year. Then we won’t even have to endure the labors of a spontaneous ad-libbed conversation.

Remember when 4-year-old Spencer used the bacon-grease-drenched paper towel to wipe off his face?

Remember when Gary spent an evening organizing a big box of Crayons according to the pretentiousness of the color names?

Remember when Paige squealed and clapped like an organ-grinder monkey every time Dulce the dog walked by?

Remember when a bird flew into the yard squawking wildly, causing us to look up and see a bald eagle soaring overhead?

Remember when Kate said, “The shadows on the lake look like squid, Dada.” And a beat later added, “I don’t know what squid are.”

Remember the day we ate pig five ways (bacon at brekkie, ham in a salad at lunch, sausage-’n'-cheese glop dip with cocktails, and home-smoked pulled pork sandwiches and pork and beans for dinner)?

Remember when Kate was so goofy crushy on 7-year-old Max, and she tried to impress him by saying things like, “I wrote a 4, Max. Want to see it?”

Remember how Uncle Gary was the sweetest manny EVER to all six kids? (Mental note: Bring him along on all family vacations. Better yet, have him move into basement room as au pair.)

Remember when the college co-ed during the Surly Brewing tour asked Omar beguilingly “How do you drink so much beer and maintain that girlish figure?” and he replied, “Chasing after my four kids.”

Remember how in an unusual bout of “sure-I’ll-try-that” Kate agreed to be towed in inflatable dinghy behind the speedboat, and grinned and gave thumbs-ups the entire time?

Remember when it was taking a while for Gary and proud Eagle Scout Mark to light the campfire, and young Max asked if they’d “ever done this before?”

Remember when Becca regaled us with excellent ER tales of an overweight woman unaware she was pregnant—or in in labor, a snowmobiling tweaker, and a girl skewered by a long golf cart prong? (Don’t worry, the skewered girl got better, the tweaker’d only imagined there was a bomb following him, and the ignorant preg-o decided to keep the baby because she figured it’d give her “something to do.”)

Remember how babies Leo and Paige communicated through the clear dog door like separated lovers at a prison visitation?

Remember how Omar still didn’t beat Mark at Trivial Pursuit?

Ah yes. Good times, all.

On our last night, when Kate should have been saying charming polite goodbyes she opted for an epic tantrum. Once she calmed down enough to speak, she admitted her fit was about having to leave. We’d been with our friends for five days.

“Next year,” she said between big weepy intakes of breath, “Can we stay for six days?”


Chalk One Up for Me

Posted: August 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Discoveries, Extended Family, Friends and Strangers, Husbandry, Kate's Friends, Misc Neuroses, Miss Kate, Other Mothers, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Scary Stuff, Sisters, Summer | 2 Comments »

People are constantly going on about how Paige is a mini-Mark. And some folks say Kate looks like me.

Frankly, I don’t see it at all. I mean, Paige looks like Paige. A small delicious dumpling with loopy blond curls, a button nose, and pudged-out cheeks. She’s still got those inverted knuckle dimples on her hands. You know the ones? I meant to take note of when Kate went from having those to getting normal convex knuckles, but I missed it. It must’ve happened overnight.

Anyway, Mark. If you ask me, he looks nothing like Paige. He’s a grown man for God’s sake. Lean—in case you haven’t met him—and all chiseled and angular. Not many pudgy parts to him.

I guess when I look at those two I just see Paige and Mark.

As for Kate, it’s even harder—or maybe just weirder—to see myself in her looks.

Which isn’t to say that Mark and I aren’t constantly labeling the things that the girls do as being either him-like or me-like.

Kate screaming a conversation from one room of the house to another? My genes. Her morning rat’s nest hair snarl? That’d be me. Kate’s love of sour cream, non-stop banter from the moment she wakes, and occasional “No one’s paying attention to me!” whining fits? Well, uh, that’d be me too. I’ll also lay claim to both girls’ ability to pack away the pasta, and Paige’s Herculean ability to sleeeeeeeeep.

As for Kate’s skinny butt, obsession with books, and tendency to hang back in new places? Mark, Mark, and Mark. Also Mark: Paige’s love of bikes and music.

At our nephew’s eighth birthday party this summer, Mark discovered something he never knew about me. It was at a pool party, at some fancy suburban community center. There were three pools, and they had one of those bright blue three-story water slides. The kind that have an enclosed tube that loops around like a big spiral staircase and spits you out at a high velocity at the bottom.

When Mark first laid eyes on it, he practically shoved the kids, bags, and towels in my hands and ran towards it, arms flailing overhead. He was giddy, grinning, and asking permission if I could watch the kids so he could do it, as if I was his mother. It was sweet.

Later, back at the kiddie pool, still all smiles from his water slide high, he asked if I’d gone on it yet. I looked over at the thing and said softly, “No.”

“Oh my God, GO!” he commanded. “You HAVE to go on it RIGHT NOW.”

So I went. Spurned by his excited insistence. Buoyed by a desire to be the mother of two who might not wear a bikini any more, but is still game for a good time. But really, scared shitless.

As I got closer, my spontaneous bravado faltered. I still wanted to go down the thing, to surprise myself with how much fun it’d end up being, but I needed back-up. So I enlisted the birthday boy who was waiting in line for some other treacherous thrill ride. I tried coming off like I was rallying him to join me for some big fun. Really I just thought it’d be nice to have some family around at the time of my demise.

En route we saw my niece. I got her to come along with us too.

At the slide, the teen monitoring the line indicated I’d have to go up the staircase alone. “One at a time,” she droned, staring blankly ahead. Here I was taking my life in my hands, and she’s just wishing she was texting her boyfriend.

I had a tight feeling in my gut, but dropping out of line at this point would be embarrassing. So I butched up and trudged onward alone.

At the top, another compassionless teen instructed me to “just lie down with my arms crossed over my chest.” How fitting, I thought. They make you assume a corpse pose.

Motivated only by my wish to get it over, plus pressure from the long line of young sadists behind me, I assumed the position and pushed off. My niece, who’d picked up on my anxiety (smart gal), cried out behind me, “When you see the light Aunt Kristen, hold your breath!”

It was every bit as horrifying as I’d feared. Claustrophobic, jarring, and with a slamming plunge into cold water to cap it off.

For 15 minutes afterward, I shook. I fretted. My stomach flip-flopped. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t trusted my instincts, and vowed over and over in my head, “NEVER AGAIN.”

Gathered round the picnic table, shivering and soothing myself with pizza, Mark was astounded. He had no idea I’d been so afraid, that I hate those fucking things, and that even after it was over the experience could continue to seize me with terror.

Rather than suffer the spectacle of my supreme wimpishness alone, I felt compelled to drag my sister (the birthday boy’s mom) down with me. “Well, SHE’D never do it either!” I said to her friends, pointing to the woman who bushwhacked her way through remotest Mexico, outwitted spies sent out to trail her, and shot films solo (and on the sly) in Asia’s Golden Triangle heroin hub. That gal’s sweet-talked her way out of tight spots and international dramas that’d leave James Bond stymied and whimpering.

They didn’t believe me. So I called over to her.

“Ellen?” I said, nodding my head in the direction of the slide.

“SHIT, no!” she said, knitted her brows together in horror. “You crazy?”

I turned back to her friends smugly, and reached for another slice of pizza.

A couple weeks later, I returned to the scene of my trauma. Or tried to. I wasn’t with a PTSD therapist, just a friend and our kids. But I screwed up the times, and it was closed. As a consolation prize to our disappointed wee ones, we went to some other suburban dream park, replete with a mushroom-shaped water sprinkler, paved wading creek, and a playground the size of Delaware. (I’m telling you, that playground was bigger than Rhode Island.)

The kids stripped down to their suits the second we arrived, and ran off willy-nilly, not sure where to head first.

Basking in the serene sense of suburban safety, my friend and I got to chatting and weren’t hawkishly watching the older kids. And mid-way through some “We have GOT to get sitters and all go there” kinda conversation, Kate runs up to us tear-drenched and screaming. I could barely understand her.

“It’s not like the one at school! It’s not like the one at school!” she shrieked, shaking and snotting and wailing loudly as I snugged her up in a towel.

A minute later Owen cruised up, smiling his sweet charmer’s smile. My friend turned to her son. “What happened to Kate, Owie?” Ready to accuse him of wrongdoing, as we often do with our own kids.

“Uh, she went down the slide,” he said, then took off to get in line for the swings.

The slide. Ah yes. Well that explains it.

That right there would be my genes.


Lost Love

Posted: August 7th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Kate's Friends, Miss Kate | 3 Comments »

Kate does not like lost things. I don’t even mean losing her own stuff, but when anyone loses anything.

A couple months ago on one of our late afternoon Tibetan-monk-like circumnavigations of the block, I made the mistake of reading a sign to Kate.

“Missing Bunny!” it said. And there was a grainy photocopied picture of little Snowflake or Fluffy or whatever its name was, and contact information for the lost thing’s human family.

Just seconds into reading the sign, I realized I shouldn’t have. But by then it was too late. We stood by the sign, Kate stretching to peer up at the picture, then demanding I read and reread it several times. Including the phone number.

“We have to find that bunny, Mama” she said matter-of-factly, then pushed off on her bike, her bulbous helmet bobbing up and down as she peered under bushes and behind parked cars calling out, “Snowflake? SNOWflake! Where aaaaaare you?”

Then, adding another dose of poor parental judgment, I joined in on the game. I mean, her enthusiasm and optimism were so sweet, how couldn’t I?

But by the time we rounded the fourth corner, our house in sight and the late-day wind picking up, we had (unsurprisingly) not found Snowflake. And that (unsurprisingly) was not okay with Kate.

“We CAN’T go inside!” she bellowed, leaning forward from her hips and dangling her arms straight down in her Pose of Utter Dismay. “WE. HAVE. NOT. FOUND. SNOWFLAKE!”

Oh dear. How do you explain the snowball’s-chance-in-hell-we’ll-find-Snowflake concept to a determined animal-loving kid? I mean, I might as well stomp on her good will with golf shoes. And all my previous bad decisions around this issue aside, I knew I had to manage the situation carefully. One wrong move at this point had the potential to turn Kate into a rabid lifelong PETA activist, following Pam Anderson Dead-tour style, and spending years in therapy exorcising the childhood trauma her heartless bunny-hating mother subjected her to.

Somehow I coaxed her inside. Likely through a series of short-sighted lies along the lines of, “Tomorrow’s a brand new day where we can wake up early and spearhead a large Snowflake search party! But right now it’s important that we go inside, eat a good dinner, and fortify ourselves for the work at hand.”

And then, somehow, the next day Little Miss Steel Trap Mind forgot about Snowflake.

But just a couple days ago we were heading out the door to swim class and saw that someone put a stuffed monkey on the wall by our front steps. Assuming, I guess, that it was ours.

“Oh noooooooooo!” Kate squealed. “Look, Mommy! Someone’s lovey! Someone lost their lovey.”

It was quite sad there. One of those monkeys that’s really a kinda long soft monkey-headed blankie. Exactly the kind of possession that could prevent a child from sleeping, weathering an injury, thumbsucking. (Trying to think what the adult equivalent of this is for me. Uh, a glass of wine? Mark? My mom’s old long johns that I wear to watch TV when I’m cold or grumpy?)

But of course, we were late. And so I upped the emotional ante for Kate by scooching her away from the wayward monkey, propping its head up and saying, “If we just put it like this, someone will walk back and find it.”

5:30PM. Home from swim class. Monkey-blankie still there.

Kate? Fully immersed in the missing monkey drama.

“We need to make a sign, Mama! LOST LOVEY. Then someone will see it and find it.”

I loved the idea. I wanted to indulge Kate’s sweet community spirit. But I also needed to make dinner. And I didn’t manage to eke out the few minutes it’d take to get the art supplies down, plus a big piece of paper, and write out the words.

The next day, distracted by unfolding a stroller and trying to prevent Paige from sweeping all the DVDs off the shelf onto the floor, and wondering how it was that the kids ate breakfast but I somehow didn’t, Kate walked onto the front porch.

“The monkey!” she cried out. And I thought, here we go. I’ll be on the local news tonight holding it up and making a plea. We’ll be contacting the milk carton people and Kate’ll build a website and put up play money for any information related to finding the the monkey-blankie’s rightful owner.

But no.

“I want it!” she yelped. “I want to take it inside! Can I have it, Mama?”

And I thought about that poor kid, well, that poor mother really, trying to coax some second-runner-up stuffy onto a bereaved child. But really, at that point, weren’t the odds of a happy reunion slim? So I relented.

And now we have a new, formerly-owned monkey.

I guess we still could prop up the thing outside, refreshed from its tour in our washing machine. We still could make that sign after all. But if we somehow don’t manage to, I hereby vow to try extra hard on our next encounter with someone’s lost love.


Spider Bites and Love Webs

Posted: July 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Friends and Strangers, Kate's Friends, Miss Kate, Other Mothers, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Parenting | No Comments »

The greatest truths are spoken in the kitchen. Don’t you think?

Like yesterday. I was with two Mama friends waiting for some mac and cheese to cook. Our five girls were playing in the next room. And my friend, who I’ll call Molly, started riffing off Ayelet Waldman’s media-frenzy “love my hub more than my kids” comment.

Molly’s all, “I mean, if the girls and J were all standing at the edge of a cliff and someone had to go? I’m sorry but, ‘Goodbye, J!’”

That life-altering decision would come as little surprise to her husband, she explained. In fact, the two of them make sport of those kinds of things.

“Oh we play this game all the time,” she said. “Which could you stand to live without—mint chip ice cream?” holding one hand up in the air. “Or the baby?” raising the other hand, then balancing them back and forth.

Giving the pasta a stir she looks at us laughing. “Mint chip ice cream IS pretty good.”

It sounds crass, but Molly’s an all-star mother. And she adores that fine man of hers.

The thing is, those of us who work this Mama gig fulltime need this kind of emotional outlet. It’s like love leeching. Undistracted by conference calls, irate clients, and Friday bagel days, we’re immersed undiluted in the worlds of our children who we love so fiercely. To the point where it can gets sickening. You need a break, a little let-up.

Before having kids I’d heard parents yammer on about their hearts existing outside their bodies. They’d say they couldn’t watch Law & Order any more. The crimes they’d show against kids were just too painful.

I always found that a bit dramatic. And, in my pre-Mama days, frankly boring.

But then I had Kate. Not only did I feel some version of my heart living outside my body, I felt at times like it was wrapped in barbed wire. Some days it was being dragged down the street behind a speeding car.

Last week, during her after-school snack, Kate mentioned, “No one wanted to play with me today.” This news flash, delivered so off-handedly, made me want to turn from the table and barf.

When Kate was a wee babe-ish, I was in her room, rocking her in a chair that was positioned in manner that could best be described as a feng shui train wreck. I’m not sure what compelled me to cram it at the window alongside the crib, but there it was. And there I was. Wedged in and rocking.

Maybe it was the hormones, maybe the tragic feng sui, but as I sat there gazing at her small human-ness, I had the thought that some kid might tease her on a playground some day. That someone might be mean to her. And that nearly destroyed me. Tears and snot started dripping down my face.

Then, because it’s fun to sometimes push oneself to an even more painful level, I had the thought that she could get sick. I’m not talking bad scary sick, just like a cold. And that threw me over the edge.

I was shaking and snorting and wondering how we could hole up there in that room with the poorly-arranged furniture and live out our days. Safe from mean children, germs, the world.

And then, since none of these imagined atrocities were even upon us—or her, as it were—and I was handling just the thought of them so poorly, I started blubbering even harder. Dismayed by how poorly this all boded for my ability to cope as a parent.

As I said, it might’ve been the hormones. But it might also have just been my first concentrated dose of Mama love. It’s so huge it can be downright staggering when a wave of it rolls over you sometimes.

But blessedly, that love spigot ain’t turned to full blast 24×7. That’s what refusing-to-get-dressed tantrums are for, right? To give one a bit of perspective that, well, someone being mean to her on the playground might not be the worst thing ever.

I mean, in Molly’s game if you don’t pick the ice cream answer sometimes, you’ll just sit in a rocking chair weeping and forlorn with love all day. And that’s just not productive for anyone.

But hearing no one wanted to play with Kate—when friendlessness ranks high as an unimaginable hell for me—was brutal. There she was, eating her vanilla yogurt. Not being whiny or demanding or grabbing toys from her sister. Being so mild and wide-eyed and innocent.

Add to that, changing Paige’s dipe that morning, I noticed 20-odd angry red splotches on her legs. Marks that, after several friends inspected them throughout the day, I concluded were spider bites.

Some malevolent spider invaded Sweet P’s crib to prey on her while she slept! And now the poor girl was distraught, clawing at the itchy welts and looking, well, diseased.

I’m scared shitless of spiders, but if I ever saw the thing that did that to her, I’d punch it square in the eye. Damn baby biter.

Though I have to admit thinking that spider must’ve been psyched to’ve found Paige. One bite of that plump gam and he knew he’d hit the flesh-eating jackpot.

I went to a writing class Wednesday. The teacher, a divorcee in her 40s with no kids, writes mostly memoirs and personal essays. She mentioned she’d recently hit a dry patch. Not finding much life fodder to make the subject of a story.

Here she is, wrung dry. And I’m desperately—sometimes painfully—in love with three people, who all live under the same roof. I spend idle moments daydreaming about a third child, thinking it could maybe sop up some of this surplus of love.

With my luck though, I’d likely just produce more.

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