Halloween

Another October is upon us.  Of course those of us who think Halloween is the very best holiday of the year are thrilled (and simply without any of the guilt of Christmas or Easter, unless you count sneaking your kids tiny Twix from his booty pumpkin).  We have the big box of old costumes to play in, and the boys have been discussing what they want to dress up as for this Halloween since the last one came and went.  I never know what they are going to say, and it can deviate over the course of the ensuing months.  Yet, Segundo seemed to know with great conviction last winter that he absolutely HAD to be James Bond and asked every other week if I had gotten his “tuxedo” yet.

I am not such a fool as to show the entire Bond film collection to children under ten.  But for Christmas last year the family got all the Sean Connery Bonds on DVD and watched them over the course of several weekends.  They are just tame enough, just campy enough, not to be taken too seriously on the scare and sex and violence scales.

The allure of an adult spy with a wry sense of humor and lots of cool gadgets and cars is a no brainer; I was not surprised that Segundo (who is a wry and bright child) finds Bond so much fun.  Husband even joked that Segundo’s good female friend go as a Bond girl (something I do not think her progressive Mennonite parents would approve of).  A funny mental image, but I know Miss E would demand her own water pistol and think of herself more as an Emma Peel type (especially given her behavior at the boys last birthday party when she and Segundo played spies ALL day together).

The tiny tux was an easy Ebay find for under $30, and it included a shirt and slim bow tie.  The shoes are still hiding in some thrift store waiting for me to find them.  The water pistol is spray painted silver, and I hesitated at adding a small plastic martini glass- junking it up and going too far, no matter how momentarily cute.  Besides, the new Skyfall posters have no glasses (and thankfully no cigarettes like the old Connery posters).  Segundo is excited and is just waiting to transform.

Primo at first wanted to be Q from the Bond series, then changed his mind.  He figured it was too much like the mad scientist he went as last year.  After Thor came out on DVD, he was mesmerized.  Segundo cottoned to Captain America and Primo to Thor, as the super hero thing goes.  Their good friends took on Iron Man, Batman, and Spider Man, so all is well.  No competing duplicate heroes on play dates!  SO! One cheap Thor winged helmet and foam Thor hammer from Amazon, a red cape from the costume box, a breast plate from an old knight costume, black sweat pants, a long sleeved grey shirt I painted the lattice work black lines on, black rubber rain boots and viola! Mighty Thor for Primo!

We have been through a bee, dinosaur, ghost, cowboy, Frankenstein’s monster, Indiana Jones; a chef, robot, The Scarecrow (from Wizard of Oz), Dumbledore, The Man in the Yellow Hat (from Curious George), and mad scientist.  The boys have seen costumes on friends of juice boxes, a bag of candy, video game, etc. but they tend not to be interested in inanimate objects and go more for characters.  It is so fun to see them in any get up, but Halloween is special.  I think it is a time when we can take on alter egos, and feel brave (or naughty, or anything other than what we usually feel) and go out into the world.  I know I wish I could dress up with abandon again and just for a little while pretend.  It can get very weary being an adult, and I want to encourage my kids to use their imaginations to experiment with being whomever they can be and see how it feels, test those boundaries, and play out what it means to be “the good guy” and “the bad guy” in different, safe ways.

Schools don’t usually celebrate Halloween anymore, but have a “dress up day” some where in the weeks before Halloween as a concession to the holiday and the primal need for dress up play.  The boys will wear their costumes and have a trial run, getting home after school and gabbing loudly about who wore what.

I don’t go over the top decorating, and wish I had the energy to throw an old school Halloween party.  But again this year I’ll have to just enjoy giving out candy at the door and seeing all the wonderful children in costume.  I’ll put some scary music on the stereo and the pumpkins that the boys carved the week before will be lit (and maybe me too if I can grab a glass of wine), the plastic skeleton will hang from the tree out front and the fake headstone will poke through the front herb garden.  Husband will probably arrange to meet up with Other Dads down the street and walk the gang of kids from door to door.  Our neighborhood still revels in Halloween and people drive in from other neighborhoods to walk our streets.  Porches are decorated and lit, and streams of children run around noisily from five to nine p.m. going house to house.

People will stop and converse, neighbors touch base.  When the night is done and the kids are washing off any chocolate and make-up, the plastic pumpkins emptied and the goods sprawled on the kitchen table, I’ll walk out and extinguish the candles in the pumpkins outside (if the candles have not already melted out by then) and look at the sky.  Some years there has been a moon, some years just clouds.  A cool breeze usually blows, and bats flutter around streetlights to get at the last of the bugs.  Some teenagers will still be lurking around, the pre-driving years types; looking lost, caught between being a kid and being a full-on teen.

Yeah, I’ll sneak a Twix or a tiny Snickers and will quickly sort out the gum and odd candies from the loot and put it into our leftovers bowl for Husband to take to his students the next day.  The rest will get bagged and put into the pantry for the next several weeks’ worth of treats.

We will watch the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, and will have watched The Nightmare Before Christmas as part of our Halloween Eve ritual the night before.  The costumes will go into the dress up box, and discussions of what to go as next year will begin.

The holiday let down will happen, the decorations scooped up and taken to the basement the next day.   There will be a pause, the weather will get colder, and Thanksgiving will come and go.  The weekend after Thanksgiving the Christmas decorating begins, and Halloween will slide into memory again.

I adore the old Halloween decorations from the early twentieth century, and the old animated Disney Halloween films (easily visited on You Tube!).   The idea of carving a root vegetable (the original “pumpkin”) comes to mind every year, and jumping over a fire pit (but at my age it’s not a wise thing to do!); scaring away the fears that haunt us about the future, and making peace with our dead and the fear of death (I like the mashing up, the blurring that is occurring with the Latin Day of the Dead and Halloween).

Here comes fall, autumn, the harvest, the time of hunkering down and getting through the winter.  Happy Halloween out there, and if you get a chance- put on a costume and play.

Good

People say things like, “I am good at (fill in the blank. Playing piano, guitar, golf, typing, you name it)”.  A qualifier, such as “I worked really hard to learn it”, usually accompanies the statement; or, “I still have a lot to learn” or, “I could not have mastered it with out a mentor, a friend,” etc.  The point is most people will admit, even if just to intimate others, that they are good at something.  Yet never, never in my life in any book, media statement, casual conversation, overheard discussion, or drunken revelation have I ever heard anyone say, “I am a good parent”.  More to the point, “I am a good mother.”  Not a great mother, not a superior mother- no those would be value judgments that seem even more taboo.  Still, I have never heard anyone say that they are even just a good mom.  You think people might feel that way at some point.  But it seems they don’t.

I had to ask myself why.  Is it because we too readily conflate parenting with life, and no one would say, “I am good at life”, which is grammatically awkward at best, and conceptually infinite at worst.

Is it because we have no taught, explicit evaluation and assessment standards for parenting?  No ruler by which to explicitly judge others and ourselves?  Well, it’s true- there is no parent certification course required to have children (despite the shelves of books available claiming to instruct us).  But we do have standards. Oh, we do.  I hear people say all the time “I am a BAD parent”, or “I was a bad parent that day”, or “He/she is such a difficult/demanding/etc.=bad parent.”   So we have some type of internalized standards by which we judge ourselves and others, but it seems only to reflect a baseline and everything beneath it- very little over and above the baseline of adequacy, even though we may envy someone’s organization, another’s cleanliness, or still another’s patience with their children.

We only have our own parents and sometimes those of others who showed us what parenting is; we also have sound bite utopias from television, but that seems to enter in very little except to make us feel uneasily inadequate.

I have heard moms say “I am so glad I/we got through the diaper stage!” and they will also smile and talk about the achievements of their children, yet they do not willingly take any credit for such achievements, but will often take responsibility for the failures of their children (I/we did not work enough, did not get the right things to eat, enough sleep, read the right books, go to the right summer camps, etc.).

In the US, people usually are a little reticent to boast, or to take credit for their own accomplishments anyway.  Especially women, or so all the business-psych articles tell us.  We have precious little language for expressing our self-satisfaction, or our own goodness, much less understanding it.  Is it because pre-kids, we have only fantasies of what parenting is?  Being a mother is one of the most vilified as well as over-romanticized activities on the earth.  Reality is such a different story; there is a chasm between people we know who have kids and those who don’t and it seems so difficult to explain why.

What would happen if, as we lay down to sleep every night, as moms we reviewed our day and were willing to say to ourselves “I was a good mom today, and this is why I think so”, and be aware of the mistakes, consider them soberly, but move them to a different list?  What if we told people we know well when they were a good parent?  Told them we appreciated their example, to us and for our children?  And perhaps most difficult, what if we could accept the compliment for ourselves when someone, without manipulative intent and with sincerity, tells us the same?

I have been wrestling with a birthday that is a few years off and reviewing my life.  Right now, and I know it is partly the blues-  I can find little about which to feel good; little I can say “I was good at that” or, “I am good at that” about.  I am starting to wonder if this is what moving towards old age is about; realizing most of life if not all is in retrospect an area of gray.  The highs and lows sink and rise, but in summary fade to gray like the rest of time spent.  Not especially unique, not especially valorous, not especially successful, and sometimes completely failed, and hugely disappointing.  If this is true, I have the option of saying “Oh well” and finding things to make me happy on a smaller scale, on an everyday basis and just get on with it- or get depressed.  I think I’d rather work on trying to be a better parent, and hope I can someday feel good about it when I go to bed at night.  Oh, and tell others when I think they are good too.  Maybe someday, I can help my own children be parents and not have to fall back on the crap shoot that is the real-time learning curve they are/we are currently suffering through.

We only get one shot at raising our kids.  I want to try to make the best of it, warts and all.  But I also want to be good at it, and that is a whole different matter.

 

of an age

When we speak of our children, we sometimes say, “They are of an age. . .” indicating that a level has been achieved in which they can be trusted to do something themselves, or when we expect booger and poo jokes to be in full bloom.  I have been thinking about the former this week.

It seems I have griped for so many years about feeling put upon, and when I said it immediately felt guilty, for the constant attention from my children.  The neediness, the must-keep-an-eye on, the do they need food-liquid-medicine-exercise and moment to moment care required for small children.  Now as if by magic, I have had several months of both my children in full time elementary school.  I had such grand ambitions at first.  All the lists of things I would get done, and try to do.  Much of that evaporated for one reason or another.  My fault entirely.

But there was also the unexpected loneliness.  There was no one to dance or giggle with when I played They Might Be Giants, no one to eat lunch with.  It was strange. 

This past week has been Christmas vacation.  One child has been sick (inevitable) and the other off working with Daddy.  I do not know what I expected, but it has been a let down.  This morning, for the first time in about eight years, I took a magazine into the bathroom for a sit.  I could hear the boys outside watching PBS kids and playing on the floor, being good brothers.  I knew I could trust them to answer the phone if needed, not kill each other, or destroy body level objects.  I got through much of the thin magazine.  I was both surprised and pleased, because I realize the experience would have been dramatically different if I had not had the accompanying sound on the other side of the door.  I miss the boys, and having them around is a pleasure- even if the occasional glass of juice still gets upended, toys litter the floor, and a whine for something to eat will arise.

Being a parent is a constant revelation no one ever is instructed on how to appreciate, and the experiences are so personal I am not sure adages and tips ever fully apply.  I did not want anything for Christmas that required cash, and told Husband as much.  I wanted him to help me figure out the video camera and download mechanisms, I wanted the kitchen ceiling finished, I wanted everyone healthy.  What has surprised me is the gift of time and everyday happiness I have.  The world can swirl in chaos outside, but for now, I am grateful for just this: my family and our simple stability.   They boys may be of many ages at many times, and I don’t want to miss any of it.   I think it will be all I ever really want.

Merry Christmas.

Clean

Clean is an idea, a concept.  In practice though, what is clean?  To be more specific, how can two small people make such huge messes?  I have given up on my husband.  He cleans when he gets irritated, and usually goes a little bananas on the laundry and his studio.  But in daily life, I have given up hoping the ten feet from the table to the kitchen sink would ever become a worn path from people-especially husband- getting dishes to the sink.

It’s the necessity every day, often more than once, of having to sweep under and around the table that amazes me.  There is a direct correlation between how messy the floor around the table is and how messy the top of the table appears.  Two people shorter than I am, who weigh at least half as much, but the messes they can create in very short spans of time are shocking.  Can they use utensils?  Yes they can.  Can they use napkins?  Yes, yes they can.  Then why is it after a simple cereal breakfast it looks like Tony the Tiger got in a cage match with the Natures Organics lady while trying to sell product?

After seven years of male kids, I have acclimated to the Legos- I don’t like it, I still complain, even rage when I get one into the arch of my foot.  But acceptance is the first step, right?  The Legos will never fully be cleaned up.  Ever.  Nor will they stay cleaned up, once a pick-up blitz has occurred.  Legos will always litter my house.  As long as they do not get into the sink or toilet drains, as long as they do not get lodged in a child’s throat, as long as the insinkerator does not chop them up, the dishwasher melt them, or the lawn mower make them into shrapnel, I am good.  Time teaches us things you see.

I have accepted after six years of DIY home renovation that it will not ever be completely finished.  I accept my responsibility in this- is the wallpaper fully removed from the stairwell?  No it is not.  Are the corners under each step swept?  No.  Are there continual piles of papers (and I know what is in each one of them so no one dares move them) on the piano, and on the guest bed (which is ostensibly in my “office” work space?)?  Are there piles of fabric for long ago conceived projects pushing the closet doors open in my office, calling to me?  Yes.

But then, will the last of the floor trim ever be fixed and put back in place?   Will the ceiling ever be complete?  Oh the drama.  Peyton Place never had such questions!  Because in TV Land, everything is clean.

I had a friend once tell me (also a mom) that there is a distinct difference between clean and unhygienic that people do not truly understand until they have children.  I was mortified when Husband recently pointed out the old crusty vomit flecks at the base of the pantry door (which is usually hidden by the bedroom door that opens in front of it), I would have cleaned it with all the rest of the incident months ago had I seen the splatter (Tiny people also have a way of producing copious projectile vomit that can not be believed until you have kids).  THAT was unhygienic, and I cleaned it after he told me.  Sweatshirts of all sizes littering the floor?  Just messy.  Par for the course.  Toys everywhere?  Standard daily life.  The compost bowl buzzing with fruit flies?  Unhygienic- why? The child responsible for the daily task slacking off, and the Husband who borrowed my stainless steel compost pot (an ingenious reworking of a salvaged food service piece and an old Pyrex lid that fit it perfectly) not returning it. 

But I have to ask, why does the first floor bathroom ALWAYS have to smell like the monkey house at the zoo?  I grew up believing that being male was such a urinary advantage- the whole standing up, no need to fully undress one’s lower half thing especially.  But as a parent, I wonder why they can’t aim properly.  And yes, the mess annoys me on many levels, especially hygiene related.

Clothes will be wrinkled; and as my children are still under 12, I will put clothes away.  But can’t they get the ones off their bodies down the steps at least NEAR the laundry room?  Smelling worn clothes thrown together with clean- that is always a risky prospect, as any parent will tell you.  Clothes left in summer camp bags, under beds, or in gym bags- that is down right haz mat territory.

So when a dear friend (who has been single all his life, and who not only has impeccable taste but feels he requires a cleaning lady at least once a week- and what for still stymies me) comes to visit and is more than a little unnerved by all the mess; he judiciously wonders about the definition of clean as it applies to us.  He admits his comfort level is somewhere, oh light years away from ours.  He also has never been married, or had children.  ‘Nuff said.

Do I get nervous when we have people over?  A little.  We laugh with self-deprecation and try to make explicit our embarrassment at the unfinished construction and daily mess.  Most people with children nod and laugh too, some share anecdotes about the height of the dirty laundry piles hidden in the basement, or the unidentified crud on a spoon from a dishwasher going on the fritz.  Most shake their heads over toys, and admit to just “closing the door” on their children’s rooms.  We all know we have battles to pick; we have check mark boards, we have reward tiles, we have poker chips as cash.  We have designated family cleaning time every week (our is Saturday AM until the boys get into weekend sports), and know what can be accomplished and what cannot in that span of time.

Are we clean?  Sometimes.  Are we dirty?  I would not say so, but that is a whole other rant I think.  Is there a continuum of clean that we have to manage and know intimately in order to function?  Yes.  Survive, even, I will say- your blood pressure and sanity depends upon it.  In sum dear reader, nothing is simple- not even the definition of clean.   Life has taught me that, and life will go on even if robot origami, a handful of Legos, spilled salt, and returned homework are still on the table tomorrow morning.  Yes, life will go on.

Farewell an era

I remember sitting on the floor not far from the ironing board, where my mother pressed shirts with hissing steam while watching General Hospital, and sometimes As The World Turns.  I remember the faces, the close ups, the over-acted drama.  I remember getting a little older and acting out half-understood scenes from those soaps, trying to entertain her.  I also recall being a freshman in college, the main living room of the dorm populated midday by a mostly African American group of young women watching All My Children and howling at the screen.  I would occasionally attend, not to watch the exploits of the characters on the show, but to observe the group theatrics played out by the viewers.

I was never a joiner, never a fan of daytime soaps.  Like most people my age, I was an avid watcher of MASH, CHEERS, and various other evening shows.  But the daytime craze never reached me.  Perhaps it didn’t reach many of us, and it passed into arcane obscurity, and now one by one they are ending altogether.  It is the end of an era, several eras perhaps.

My mother used to tell me about listening to scary radio shows while she and her sister cowered under a blanket.   We play Podcasts in my home, but that is something different entirely and the content is not meant to inspire fear (although most recent news does so anyway).  Garrison Keillor still carries on the radio tradition with Prairie Home Companion, but it a re-created relic of another time, as entertaining as it is.

No, soaps were their own phenomenon, and so is the “reality” television that is replacing them.   My mother had her Dick Cavett and other talk shows, but they are not the same animal as what exists today.  A distant cousin perhaps, as the Carol Burnett show and Laugh-In were, and Ed Sullivan, Your Show of Shows, and others before them.  Soaps were entertainment, a distraction, a narrative based white noise (and very white they were) for individuals home alone (except for the babble of small children).  It was the background to my small childhood, and anesthetic for my father when he was briefly unemployed in the recession of the 70’s.

I find myself doing many of the same chores as my mother now, but instead of a soap I put the flat screen on to the Bernie Mac show.  It makes me laugh (and I try to find a reason to laugh every morning), and has a sly poignancy about family life that I find dead-on.  My children are in school, and no one sits on the floor next to me while I do dishes.   I am very much alone these days, and wonder how my mother must have felt.  Such a social person, not used to the new cul-de-sac suburbia of the early 1960’s.  I remember a few things from those days in the one level, aqua post-war house.  I look at photos and recall the objects.   I wish she were here to ask about those days, what she remembered, how she felt.  I would ask her what she thought of the soaps dying off, and watch a few final episodes with her out of nostalgia.  I would make us coffee, and sit next to her chair.  But she is not here anymore.

I make my way in the world, feeling time pass.  Technology changes, but people don’t.  We are still 3-D beings, make of flesh and bone who act on impulses, drives, and desires as well as carefully considered obligations, loyalties, and entertainments.  I shake my head this morning, oh we do become our parents!  We may run away from it, fashion ourselves lives that on the surface seem so completely different, but we do, we do become them.  For better or worse.  That phrase should not only be used at weddings, but when one finds out they are pregnant as well.  For better or worse- you are a part of this marriage, now this parenting, for the rest of your life (of course I recognize there are alternatives, but for most of us this is the social contract we enter into).  Your options have become circumscribed and huge responsibilities conferred, but not without privileges and joys.  And in the slow, quiet moments you can give yourself choices, small though they may seem these choices will become the background to your memories and those of your children.  I do not recall much about those soaps, but that they were the sound and sights of some consistent time spent with my mother.  It’s like catching her singing, or laughing to herself, those intimacies a child gets to see, those fleeting insights into the people we love.

So goes the soaps, so passes time.  Farewell to an era, a domestic ritual that has lost any meaning.  Farewell.