Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Rules of Child Rearing, According to Some Guys at Exxon

It was the best case scenario: My toddler, the Pork Chop, sat quietly in the greasy plastic chair, swinging his feet, clutching his stuffed elephant to his face, and sucking his thumb. In the tiny gas station convenience store, bags of pork rinds, libido-boosting herbal supplements, and pine-scentend air fresheners were hung at toddler height. A door to the right of the counter led into the auto repair shop. A door to the left led outside, to the gas pumps hemmed in by two busy roads.

My son is fast. My son is destructive. In a few chaotic seconds, he could have been slathered in rind fat and squeezing into a tail pipe. Or, worse: hopped up on sex vitamins and flashing passing drivers. Mercifully, he savored his thumb instead.

His thumb — his oldest, dearest companion. Predating his ratty stuffed elephant. Predating even my mother's touch.

Two men jockeyed for space behind the tiny counter. One, a clean-cut manager type with neat fingernails and a fresh polo shirt, took down my information. The other, a stocky mechanic with a thick Southern drawl and 5 o'clock shadow, fished my car key from my key chain and then trudged toward the auto repair shop, stopping briefly by the door.

"That your Chevy right there?" the mechanic asked, pointing a meaty finger toward our parking spot.

"Yup. That's us," I responded, feeling suddenly relieved that I drove an American car.

"It'll take about an hour and a half. We'll give y'all a call when she's ready," the mechanic said over his shoulder.

I opened my mouth, about to say that there was no hurry, that we'd be just down the street, eating zucchini bread and drinking smoothies at a nearby café, but then thought better of it. This is not the kind of man with whom you discuss zucchini bread, smoothies, or, for that matter, cafés, I decided. I assumed he preferred more patriotic fare, like Mountain Dew Code Red.

The door to the repair shop swung shut behind him.

I gathered my jacket and backpack full of diapers and turned toward the manager, who had come around the counter to stand in front of my kid. He tilted his head and stared down at Pork Chop. My son curled his fingers around his nose, allowing his thumb to dangle briefly on his bottom lip.

Suddenly, the manager swung toward me.

"You know why he sucks his thumb?" he asked. And before I could make my patented "I'm not properly dressed for a shit storm" face, he wagged a finger a few inches from my boobs. "Because you breastfed him too long."

And I swore that I could hear a turd hitting the ground.

"I learned that from a doctor," he said, "on a video."

Thud. Thud.

"I sucked my thumb until I was 11," he said, "because of my mother."

Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud.

"See what you did?" he chuckled, gesturing toward my quiet, wide-eyed boy, "A little thumbsucker!"

The shit rained down in a merciless torrent.

Suddenly, I wanted to nurse my son while simultaneously singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." I wanted to hold my child up by his sodden thumb and yell, "Flesh of my flesh!" or something similarly biblical. I wanted to explain that he needn't point at my boobs when discussing breastfeeding; even though I'm just a lady person, I know where breasts are generally located.

But most of all, I wanted to scream, "My son is not a 'little' anything. He kisses everyone he loves. He eats only by the fistful. He drinks soapy bathwater. He wrestles his stuffed animals. He prefers stomping to walking. He's a year-and-a-half old and he sucks his thumb. What's it to ya, punk?"

I wanted to do all of that. But I was tired, my son needed lunch, and my car needed to pass its Virginia State inspection. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, confrontation gives me bladder spasms.

"Uh, well," I stammered, "in all of my ultrasound pictures, he was already sucking his thumb."

"You mean, like, inside you?" he said, helpfully pointing at my uterine area.

"Right. Before he even was born. He just finds it comforting, I guess."

"That's so weird."

"Yeah, so weird," I said, gathering up my calm, quiet bundle of toddler and stalking off toward the café.

Breastfeeding: The Gateway Drug

Our 90-minute lunch passed in a blur of rage and self-loathing. How dare that guy judge me for breastfeeding? How dare he assume that I even breastfed? (Dear god, could he tell just by looking?) How dare he judge my son? How dare he point accusatorially at my boobs?

The trek back to the repair shop was a foot-dragging affair. On the one hand, I wanted to finally give the manager a piece of my mind. On the other hand, I had just polished off a really tall smoothie and a cup of coffee.

But the manager was nowhere to be seen. Instead, the mechanic lumbered up to me, my car key in his oily fist. His eyes darted behind me, and I instinctively turned. Dozens of Slim Jims lay in a haphazard pile around my son.

"Snack?" asked Pork Chop.

"Snack!" declared Pork Chop.

"Snack. Snack. Snack." Pork Chop chanted like a Buddhist meditation.

I expected the mechanic to mumble under his breath, to admonish my son, to call my son "boy."

But he quietly handed me my key. "She passed inspection, ma'am, but you're gonna wanna get some new tires on the front before too long. Not tomorrow or nothing. But before winter for sure. Otherwise, you's all set."

Then he nodded in Pork Chop's direction. I straightened my shoulders, instinctively crossed my arms over my chest, and waited for the good ol' boy shit storm to rain down.

"How old's he?"

"Oh, about a year and a half."

"I figured. Got a toddler myself. And two stepdaughters too. The older ones, they could spend all day braiding each other's hair, singing them songs from Frozen. But that toddler, whew, who knows? Draws on everything, then eats the dang crayons. He's just bound and determined to be whatever he wants to be, ya know? And we just gotta let 'em figure it out." The mechanic grinned, shaking his head at the glorious mystery of childhood.

I looked down at my son, waving a Slim Jim in the air like he was conducting the Exxon orchestra. Then I blinked up at the mechanic. I wanted to blurt, "I took my son to a café! We drank smoothies! I'm so sorry! I'm such an asshole!"

Instead, I scooped the pile of beef jerky back onto the shelf  and took my kid by the hand.

"I bet you give your mom a real run for her money, don't you?" the mechanic asked Pork Chop.

Pork Chop popped his thumb into his mouth, hiding his face behind my thigh.

"He's just in a shy phase," I explained, with more apologetic flair than was necessary.

"I get it. I get it, little man," the mechanic said, as my son groped for the soft hem of my sweater. "It's a big ol' world, and you just don't know who to trust."

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Superb Burb

At heart, I am a city girl, born and raised in Baltimore. As a kid, I raced my bike up and down an alley. In the swampy days of summer, my sisters and I would walk to the convenience store/liquor store/Chinese grocery to buy bubble gum-flavored soda. Friends and neighbors convened on our front porch to yak, drink a few cans of beer, and breathe in the scent of Old Bay wafting up from the nearby crab house.

By the time I was in high school, my dad had met my stepmom. Our family expanded. Our cozy home in Baltimore, however, did not. We traded in the uneven sidewalks, the takeout joints, and the seafood fumes for the suburbs. My heart was broken.

True, our new home felt palatial. The yard was green and green and green for acres  — one long, gentle hill, ending in a stream hidden by a stand of maple trees. I could see the Milky Way, because there were no streetlights.

To console myself, I trudged to the Wawa a quarter mile from our new address. Without sidewalks, I had to cut through yards or dodge traffic on the busy county road. But there was something about the fluorescent lights and aisles of snack cakes and beef jerky that comforted me, that felt familiar.

Though our suburban neighborhood was bucolic, I never got used to the silence or to the cows. College marked my return to the city. I spent the better part of my twenties and thirties either in Baltimore or near DC, and it was good — museums, restaurants, boutiques, and beautiful architecture at every turn. The shush of the Metro rushing up and down the tracks was my kind of music. Better yet, I never lacked for an interesting neighbor —an art school stoner who painted on our apartment roof; a blue-haired pearl-clutcher who barricaded her driveway with orange cones; a chatty, chain-smoking truck driver who was universally known as "The Mayor"; an aging hippie who grew squash in a plot of grass along the alley. They were what I loved most about the city.

So it pained me, almost physically, to move away again. When our son was born, Shelby and I started looking for a home. We had outgrown our apartment just as the rent outgrew our bank accounts. For months, we hunted for the perfect urban locale, someplace roomy and safe and reasonably priced and close to a Metro station and within walking distance of a locally owned coffee shop but not gentrified or filled with hipsters. Our beleaguered realtor finally explained that our Barbie Dream Duplex did not, in fact, exist. Like that, we were thrust toward the land of TGI Fridays and BJ's Wholesale Club. At least there won't be any hipsters, our realtor unnecessarily assured us.

Burglars, stalkers, and weirdos, this is not my actual neighborhood.
Fans who want to buy me coffee and donuts: PM me for info.

We bought a town home in a planned community. Our house has an extra bedroom for guests or a growing family. There is more open space than our dog could ever dream of rolling in or peeing upon. A small playground is tucked into every single block. And if there is one thing Pork Chop loves, it's eating playground mulch.

For the first few months after we moved, social media became a form of torture. Pictures of friends' walks along the harbor or lazy Saturday afternoons spent in a corner pub made me ache for city life. I grew restless, bored, bitter. It would be a cold day in Hell before I became a regular at Chipotle. Payless Shoe Source could kiss my superior urban ass (except during sandal season)! Furthermore, why did everyone in my neighborhood look so happy? It was terrifying.

To stave off insanity, I joined my local chapter of MOMS Club. And before I could say "home owners' association," my superior urban ass began to un-clench. Stranger still, I began to appreciate my little slice of suburbia — not for the space or the schools, although those are, indeed, perks, but for the people.

In the city, surrounded on all sides by a wall of people, I could fool myself into thinking that I was having human interactions: The guy at the bagel shop knows I like mine toasted extra dark! The waitress at the pub referred to me as "Oh, you again!" The mailman nodded in my direction!

With so much to do, with so many activities to keep me busy in the city, I rarely cultivated an actual friendship with people in my neighborhood. We were cordial, even friendly, but if I needed an egg or a cup of sugar, I would have sooner run to the grocery store than have knocked on someone's door. As a gal who feels a bit graceless and scared in social situations, this arrangement seemed to suit me just fine. Until I needed that egg or a jump for my car or a ride to the E.R. or a shoulder to lean on.

In the burbs, there is less to distract me. Yes, I am almost spitting distance from downtown DC, but it's not the short stroll that it once was. Also, I have a toddler. Nothing is the short stroll that it once was. I love to trek with my family to DC's Eastern or Union Market on the weekend for a hot coffee, fresh knish, and a juicy dose of people watching, but on a typical Tuesday afternoon, you'll find me hanging out in a friend's basement as toddlers throw Goldfish crackers in the air like confetti. There are rarely fresh knishes at play group, but there is often hot coffee, and the people watching is more adorable (and inexplicably wet).

These friends, these women and men who are my neighbors, invite us over for drinks at 4 o'clock because 4 p.m. falls after lunch and toddler nap time but before the witching hour of dinner. These friends pick up our mail when we go on vacation. They walk our dog and entertain our son when I am too sick to move. They bring us cookies. These friends have laughed with me and listened to me cry. My favorite barista never did any of that.

Moreover, my present day suburb is not the suburb of my youth. When my family picked up stakes and headed to the sticks almost 25 years ago, the citizenship took a turn for the homogenous. Everyone looked the same and, for the most part, believed the same. I felt like I was living in an echo chamber, one idea bouncing around endlessly. I craved debate, disagreement, even awkwardness. By contrast, my new suburban neighborhood is more diverse than any of my urban addresses.

Just in our tidy square of 20 homes, we have white, black, Latino, and Asian neighbors. Jews live next to Catholics. Obama bumper stickers quietly compete for attention with "Don't Tread on Me" license plates. And I love it.

It's not always a big hug fest; I don't live in Disney's Small World. Those disagreements and awkward moments do come to pass. But without the power of an overwhelming majority in your corner, a funny thing happens: Folks are a little nicer during the disagreements, a little more forgiving of the awkwardness. Everybody has to put out their trash on Tuesday morning. The entire neighborhood staggers outside before 7 a.m., in bathrobes or hastily buttoned dress shirts or curlers, to set a bag of damp tissues and dinner scraps and moldy tomatoes by the curb. But we still wave at each other. Do you get what I'm saying?

My son will grow up in suburbia. He will have friends that don't look like him and, I sincerely hope, he will have friends that don't think exactly like him. And, for the first time in a long time, so will I.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Hobby Phobia

I don't have a hobby. Hobbies, I'd always told myself, were for the types who secretly enjoy paint fumes and boring other people at parties. It's not that I've never been impressed by someone's model car or flower arrangement, it's just that I'm almost never impressed by someone's model car or flower arrangement. But I have my self-esteem to consider. How am I supposed to think less of other people when they make the time to cultivate actual skills while I cultivate a divot in the couch?

It's time for me to stick my face in the proverbial paint can and huff.

A few years ago, I tried to convince myself that going to the gym was a hobby. It is not. Jogging on a treadmill while watching reruns of Law & Order does not constitute "an activity done during leisure time for pleasure." It is, at best, an activity done under threat of type 2 diabetes.

I should add that I haven't been to the gym in over 2 years. Not long after I became pregnant, I decided that growing a baby directly on top of my bladder was something that must be suffered from the comfort of a bed or a warm bath or a McDonald's. And when my son arrived and all meaningful rest ended, I told myself that breastfeeding was a reasonable alternative to exercise. Like jogging, nursing my son burned calories and required a special bra. Of course, I stopped nursing my son almost 6 months ago. Nowadays, I burn calories by staying awake at night, my belly slumped on the bed beside me, and wondering why I've been cursed with a car and a washing machine and a vacuum — implements designed to efficiently run my life even as I devolve into a heap of unused muscle.

By comparison, my middle sister enjoys training for triathlons and charity runs. She eats oatmeal for breakfast and grilled chicken for lunch. She wears spandex with abandon. There are photos of her crawling out of a choppy ocean and sprinting toward an awaiting bike. I can't even step in a puddle without running home to change my shoes; I'll be damned if I would ride a bike in a soggy swim suit. Actually, I'll be damned if I would ride a bike. My point being that my sister does all of this "during leisure time for pleasure." But some people wear gimp masks and ball gags in their leisure time for pleasure. So cross triathlons off my list of possible hobbies.

You'd think I could turn to my husband for inspiration. He's a man of a million hobbies, having taken up everything from cycling to podcasting. His latest pursuit is home brewing. Plastic tubing and metal sieves are piled in the basement sink. Murky liquid bubbles inside glass jugs scattered around our laundry room. In another 2 weeks, he'll either have his first batch of porter or a chemical weapon. Aside from the clutter, I support Shelby's hobby, because I support beer. Sadly, I cannot be trusted around foodstuffs. I've memorized how to make a package of ramen noodles, but every time I try to cook in earnest, something catches fire or is served raw in the center. If I'm really on top of my game, the same something catches fires and is served raw in the center. The delicate beer fermentation process is best left to people who can at least microwave a Lean Cuisine without needing to summon the fire department. Strike beer brewing from my hobby options.

Good luck sewing with those oven mitts on, genius.

My cohorts in MOMS Club are no help either. As Halloween looms on the horizon like a giant, awful candy corn, talk at play group turns to costumes and crafts.

"Who's planning to order a Frozen costume this year?" asks one mom.

A collective "Me!" rises from the gathered group.

"Well," explains the first mom, "I've come up with an easy way to make your own Olaf costume. And it's cheap!"

The mamas lean in. A reverent hush falls across the room.

As crafty mom describes fabric paint and squares of felt and hot glue, I think to myself, "I'm a grown-ass woman with a credit card."

Let's get real. I have routinely used Scotch tape to fix a drooping hem. In an attempt to trim my own bangs, I once removed half of an eyebrow. I will not be making my son's Halloween costume. We will go to Target on October 30th and buy whatever outfit is left on the holiday aisle's smoldering heap. Crafting was long ago bucked from my hobby horse.

Athletics: no. Cooking: no way. Crafting: nope. Painting: no good. Woodworking: terrible idea. Music: ugh. Bird watching: what? Quilting: shut up. Listing everything that I'm no good at and feeling badly about myself: ding, ding, ding!

I hate imperfection. If a crust burns, I give up baking. If I miss a step, dancing is over. The fear of looking foolish tags along on all of my errands, on every outing. Before I had Pork Chop, that fear circumscribed my life, but it was my life. Now I have this precious, precocious toddler, a boy bursting at the seams to try it all. He's recently mastered stomping, flushing the potty, swirling his hands in the potty, and screaming "So funny!" at the top of his lungs.

Yes, I'm stumped by a needle and thread. Yes, I get nervous and squeaky when I sing. But my son doesn't care. He falls on his face a hundred times a day. He fails and fails and fails until, eventually, he gets it, or at least until he stops hurting himself. Every day, his little life expands. May it never stop expanding.

So let it be known, Internet, that, starting right now, I am going to stride boldly(ish) toward failure. Smoke detectors may sound. An ambulance may be summoned. I may be asked to put down a glue gun and back away slowly. But I could use a little more breathing room in this life of mine. It's not so much that I need to get a life, as it is that I need to get a life addition — one with space for a yoga mat or, god help us, a karaoke machine.

Normally, I like to end a post with some pithy observation or funny turn of phrase, but today I am going to end with a promise: I will try something new. Hell, I will try somethings. And I will keep you posted.

And if you see a ball of flame erupt in the skies above Alexandria, Virginia, do me a solid and call 911.