The $327 Teachable Moment

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Cars are stupid.

This has been one of those weeks. This is a week that began with the kids finding tap shoes and whistles at 6:30 a.m. on Monday. This is a week wherein, if I handle an egg, it inevitably leaps to the floor. This is a week of Spring Break, which means no school, holidays I never ended up figuring out how to celebrate and, apparently, snow. So you will not be surprised to learn that on Monday afternoon, my car was towed.

Allow me to set the scene: it was a beautiful (pre-snowstorm) spring day, and we had a lovely plan to meet a school friend of Harper’s at the Botanic Gardens. Did I know the Botanic Gardens were closed on Mondays? No I did not, though by this point in my day I should have seen the writing on the wall.

Once we discovered the Gardens were closed, Harper did a celebratory dance. She had not wanted to leave her game at home after all, and thought this meant a return to the great-apartment-dweller’s-whistles-and-tap-shoes performance. But this other family — four children and all — had already mobilized and I felt terrible, imagining that their kids like mine probably took forever to get ready to get out the door, and thus guessing they had been getting ready to meet us since three weeks ago — so we decided on the Prospect Park Zoo nearby. Unfortunately, I have been abusing our zoo membership lately, and the kids were getting a little meerkat-weary, so Harper proceeded to cross her arms and plop down on the sidewalk next to the car, screaming that she refused to go anywhere, and there had been much SIMPLY TOO MUCH not-being-at-home-with-tap-shoes-and-whistles. I responded the way any good, tired, frustrated, premenstrual mother would, by yelling loud enough to scare her into the car. Ollie responded by sitting in his carseat and taking deep, exaggerated breaths and singing, “Grownups Come Back.” (If there is a more heartbreaking response to a parental lack of composure, well, I’m sure I’ll see it soon.)

We made it to the zoo and it was impossible to park but I found a spot on a block where I’d parked once before on a morning visit to the zoo. And by found I meant STOLE a spot from a car that was making a U-turn for. Instant Karma is going to get you indeed.

The only caveat with this parking spot (or so I thought then) was that it was near the entrance of the zoo that involves a carousel and obviously I didn’t have cash, so it also involved a walk to at ATM, carousel ride, etc etc. This cheered everyone up enough to provide for a nice afternoon playdate, and everyone ran around and got really tired out, and then it was 5 p.m., late for us to be out and about still, but the sun felt so nice and the kids’ begging for ice cream on the way out so very loud that we stopped again, and ran around the park some more. Then, sun-stained and bleary-eyed, we went to to spot where the car was parked. Had been parked. Was not any longer parked. I went through the stages of grief in an eyeblink and then took a deep breath like I’d learned from somewhere, oh right from Ollie, and said, “Oh! Oh dear. Our car has been towed. Well, my mistake, I guess we weren’t supposed to park there after 4. Golly! Let’s take the bus home, doesn’t that sound fun?”

The kids burst into tears.

Ollie: “The bus is STINKY! I HATE the bus!”

Harper: “What about our CDs in the car??”

Ollie: “Well I don’t actually hate the bus but I want our car!”

Harper: (through heaving sobs) “When I grow up I’m going to be a police officer – wait no the PRESIDENT - and I am going to send a special tow truck to all the police cars and SMASH THEM!”

We trotted over to the bus stop. I’d already performed my most-self-loathing-inducing parenting move that day when I lost my shit and yelled, so I felt extra motivated to do this one right.  “Hey guys!” I said. “When you think about it, we are actually kinda lucky! Look, the bus stop is right here, and there’s a bench. It’s a nice day — what if it were cold and rainy right now? And we’ve taken this bus before and it goes right to our building, and I have a metrocard with money on it, and hey here’s the bus! Isn’t this actually kinda fun?”

They shook their heads and continued to weep at the thought of their precious Magic Treehouse: The Musical CD cold and alone, belting out show tunes about Camelot somewhere without them, . We got on the bus, much to the delight of the tired commuters, and found some nice seats for scream-weeping in.

The thing is, the more I repeated this to the kids — “This could have been so much worse. It’s really okay. It wasn’t the tow truck’s fault, it was my fault for not seeing the sign! And the next steps are really quite easy. You eat dinner, Daddy comes home, I go get the car, no big deal. Weren’t we lucky we were right by the stop for the bus with the route we know that goes right home? Weren’t we lucky it was a nice warm night?” — the more it felt true. Even as I headed to the Navy Yards at dusk. Even as I paid the unspeakable towing fee. Even as I got in the car with the police escort — at least they try to help you not get murdered on your way through the lot — to go find my poor lonely car.

“Miss Amy,” said the elderly man, looking at my paperwork, “You’re doing really well. I see a lot of angry people on this job. You’re doing really well.”

“Thank you,” I said, the teacher’s pet in me absurdly pleased at this thought. “I have been doing deep breathing.”

“They are really cracking down on parking violations. I’m about to throw in the towel, to be honest. I’m too old for this. Nice young ladies like you out here because you were parked in the wrong place for a few minutes. It’s too much.”

Torn between loyalty to the new mayor I did after all vote for and have a weird friend-crush on, and indignance at the expense and inconvenience of the mishap (wasn’t there some sort of regulation that if they see two car seats in the car they let you go with a slap on the wrist? Maybe a $0 warning parking ticket like they had in sweet old Iowa City?) — I nodded.

“Now, Miss Amy, did they tell you there will also be a ticket on your car?”

I was so flattered by his complimenting my coping skills that I wanted to maintain my facade as someone good at dealing with stress, so I took another deep breath, hummed “Grownups Come Back” to myself, and said, “Oh? Well that figures! What a day, right?” I pictured the angry red chart my accounting app would show again this month. I took the parking ticket off the windshield, got in the car, and accidentally listened to a full song of the kids’ eardrum-bruising CD before I remembered I could turn it off.

The kids were very shaken up by this whole experience, and wanted to recap the next day. I repeated the importance of seeing the bright side, starting to actually believe myself. Ollie switched songs to Peg + Cat‘s “Problem solved! Problem solved! We solved the problem, now everything is awesome, problem solved!” (Don’t judge, that PBS app saves my life some days.) A few minutes later, he threw up his still-chunky cheerios all over the floor. Harper stared, a hand over her mouth. Then she shrugged and said, “Oh well! This is good practice for me for when I’m a doctor some day! I bet I’ll have to get used to seeing throw-up!”

Everything is awesome, indeed.

Letting My Daughter Dress Herself. Even When That Means Princess Shoes.

ImageThe shoes I would have picked.

 

I let Harper pick out her own shoes, and you know what happened? Princesses. Pink, sparkly, branded, un-PC, post-post-post-feminist Disney princesses. (They light up, too.)

Then, obviously, I wrote an essay about it.

The School Bus 3rd Birthday and Flower 5th Birthday Mashup Party, Or the Reason Why I am Late on All My Deadlines Right Now

A while ago I asked the kids what they wanted to do for their birthday party this year, just to feel it out. After all, maybe we are past the point of the scrappy apartment shared party? Maybe they have noticed that even though their birthdays are 2 weeks apart, most of their friends don’t have to share birthday parties, so what the hell, they want separate sleepover-at-the-museum parties?

But no, this thought had not occurred to them. Without hesitating, Harper rattled off the ingredients to a perfect party: “Chocolate cake, a pinata full of candy, goody bags with candy — do NOT try to make them healthy [this in a warning tone] — music, dancing, our friends, flowers, NO GAMES, and don’t forget the candy.” Ollie added: “School buses!” Adam had his own list culled from this one, which included name tags (because dads don’t know anyone’s names), lots of beer (or as Ollie put it, “beard for the grownups”), pizza, and a 2-hour window — people were welcome to stay longer, but we served cake like an hour in, so as not to have one of those situations were you are being held hostage by a kids’ party for your whole day. What I learned from doing pretty much this same party last year (when I was also about to have a book release!) and the year before (when we had just moved into our apartment that month!) was that Sunday afternoon parties are the easiest on Mama, because then you have all weekend to pull together all those cute decorations you pinned on your damn Pinterest page and so on.

It was relatively short and sweet, the kids had fun, their friends went home with huge bag of candy and plastic crap including whistles, so now we don’t have to worry about ever having a party again because I’m sure everyone hates us. It was fun for the grownups too, or at least it was for us, which meant we kind of forgot to take pictures of the actual party, but you can imagine how it went down: lots of kids racing around and creating a huge yellow balloon rat-king, smashing our poor beautiful pinata, and Harper and Ollie sneaking off into the other room to salivate over the presents. And now I wash my hands of kid parties until next spring. Good family-planning, us!

I Read the News Today. Oh Boy.

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(illustration from the Mo Willems book I’m a Frog)

I read that “civilization is ending” article much the same way I take most of my news – half-skimmed on my phone from someone else’s Facebook post, while on the toilet, as the kids were riding brooms like horses in the hallway. I couldn’t stop thinking about the dire predictions but of course, the next thing I needed to do was to put the kids to bed. So as we got into jammies, brushed teeth, and read mind-numbing Little Critter books, here was, essentially, my thought process. I share it here because in retrospect it seems kind of funny, but I assure you this all felt/feels VERY REAL. 

  1. Man, if it’s true that industrial civilization is going to collapse in like 15 years, I’ve got to think of something I can do to help the world!… … … hmm… … … nope, I got nothing. Okay well maybe I should just try to really enjoy every moment. Just really mindful of these good, still-civilized times, really live in every instant. I mean, not right now exactly because I’m not crazy about tooth-brushing-time, but like tomorrow. We are supposed to go grocery shopping tomorrow but maybe we should do something more seize-the-day-ish like…the Botanic Gardens! Then grocery shopping. When it seems like civilization is really starting to decline I should definitely go to Costco and stock up on… something. Matches. Crackers. Firearms? No, that’s very not me. Maybe like, tuna fish. That seems right. I should probably reread Little House on the Prairie.
  2. How sad. I really like civilization, too. Mostly the art museums. And the antibiotics. And book stores. Especially the ones with cats.
  3. Pets-wise, at least Quimby won’t still be alive in 15 years. I don’t think she’d make a good post-apocalyptic dog. We’ll probably find some highly intelligent, intuitive stray who helps us find squirrel meat and stuff. <picturing my family living in Prospect Park, in a sod house.>
  4. Wait. Really? But not really? That wouldn’t really happen. People are always saying crazy things about the world ending. Remember those Waco people? It wouldn’t really happen. Or at least not to me. That can’t happen to me! I’m the POV character!
  5. Wait, what? That’s a crazy thought. And I don’t even do drugs. But I do do books. I’ve been doing too many books lately, clearly. I need to do something real. The world is about to get all The Road. And I couldn’t even finish that book because it was too depressing, and also I have to admit, the prose style didn’t thrill me. I wonder what happened in the end? Maybe it was, like, a really happy ending! But still. It would help to have some skills. Real skills. We should go camping. We should teach the kids to start a fire. Or something. The only skills any of us have are civilization skills. Reading, writing, taking photographs. Singing lullabies. I’m pretty good at that. But I guess we’d be relatively okay.
  6. Oh my god, my glasses! When civilization starts noticeably declining, someone remind me to get like 100 pairs of glasses. It will seem crazy, but I will totally really need them if, say, a future-mutant-wolf-squirrel eats mine. I can’t see a thing without them!
  7. Maybe I should tweet that link to President Obama. Wait, he probably read it. He’s probably going to take action and make it all okay. No he’s not, he’s going to get his family on a jet to the super secret satellite for all the government officials, like in that movie Elysium! I wish I was going to that super secret satellite place. But no, I’ll be here in the polluted shantytown of Brooklyn working in a robot factory with no health insurance like Matt Damon. That will be miserable. But there could be a good memoir it, I suppose.
  8. I hope I finish my next book in the next 15 years. Oh WAIT it totally won’t matter. Or maybe aliens who land on the barren wasteland of Earth in 400 years will find our books? Or they’d probably be all dissolved. How long would a Kindle last in the wild, I wonder?

I mean, in all seriousness, what are we supposed to do? Just, you know, go on writing listicles and telling the kids to turn off the tap when they are brushing to save water? I guess so. And reading books, I think. I’m not sure why but really, why not.

Who Are You Calling a Bad Mommy?

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Oh, stop judging me. (Photo by Frieke Janssens)

As usual, everything is happening elsewhere. That’s the modern world, people. 

Well, here’s what I wanted to say about the Slacker Mommy phenomenon:

Here it comes, the backlash to the “Bad Mommy” backlash to the “Perfect Mother” backlash to the “Don’t Be a Mother” backlash to the “You Have to Be a Mother” backlash to the… where was I? Oh right, the Salon article burning up my Facebook feed these days, titled “The tyranny of the bad mother: Slacker moms are just as intimidating as perfect ones.” Elissa Strauss writes about the persona of the “Bad Mother,” which has colonized the world of mommy blogs: “Born in the sanctimommy’s shadows, the bad mother is everything the perfect breast-feeding, plastic-avoiding mom is not… But then the bad mothers started getting a little judgey themselves.” Could it be that the real problem is that we have become addicted to labeling ourselves as mothers? And how has this happened?…

Read the rest on Redbook

 

The Only Thing to Discourage is Discouragement Itself

Image(via NYPL)

Is it because of writing so many of these things for the people who pay me money to write that I seem to only be able to think in lists lately?

Or is that just life in the internet age? Or life as a mother of young children who is constantly being interrupted and hasn’t had a cohesive thought in a half a decade?

Where was I?

Oh right lists. I have been thinking and talking a lot about discouragement lately.   I feel like I am often having this conversation with other writers I know:

Writer Who Is Not Me: What kind of book should one write? What is the best kind of Writer to be?

Me: Ummmm I dunno. Those are Important and Big Thoughts to Think. But I don’t have time for thoughts like that anymore. I think I remember having thoughts like that. Now I’m just happy when I have a minute to write.

WWINM: But what’s the point of it all? You work and work and work on a piece of writing and for what? Why do we try so hard? To what end? Writing something no one will publish, or that someone will publish but no one will read, or that will be read but get lousy reviews, or be really well-received and then called overrated, or that will do well now but never enter the literary canon? Or else to get a job teaching writing that still barely supports us or offers only crud health insurance so that one day we sit joylessly among our dusty books while the teeth fall out of our heads one by one?

Me: Ummmm I dunno. I just, like, get crabby when I don’t write?

But of course I get discouraged, everyone does. Here are three ways I try to dig out:

1) Do the thing. Talking about writing and thinking about writing are both somewhat crazy-making. What I actually like doing is writing. I had a rather abstract conversation about What Writing Is the other day, and felt a little muddled, and then sat down to write, and changed the phrase “walked down” to “descended” and felt a clean jolt of joy, and then became miraculously unmuddled. These are rare moments but such good ones.

2) Don’t do the thing. Then again, sometimes trying to write makes me just as crazy as not writing, because in my life right now finding time to write means missing out on family time on the weekend when my husband can watch the kids, or paying a nice lady many dollars I don’t have to watch the children, or not sleeping enough which then makes me not a nice mommy, and all of these things are stressful, and sometimes I have to remind myself that, in the grand scheme of things, there is no real rush, and if creative work happens slowly for a few years when the kids are small, it’s really okay. It’s just a few years, in the end. So if I don’t write 150 pages and finish my novel draft this weekend, and if I want to read a book tonight instead of doing novel research, it’s okay not to beat myself up about it.

3) Make it easy to enjoy other peoples’ successes. This is a tricky one I know, and not a nice one to talk about because who wants to admit that they greet other people’s triumphs with a petty, self-pitying inward grumble? I mean, I can imagine some people feel that way. Other, much smaller-souled people than moi, of course!

Something that has been really nice for me the past 6 months or so is hosting my reading series, Lit at Lark.   Reaching out to writers, getting to enjoy great writing in that pure-reader way that first made me want to write, connecting with other people who do this crazy thing I do too – it’s been somewhat nourishing. And it helps me to remember that when something good happens for another writer, it’s really just something good for everyone who likes books and wants them to keep existing.

4) Then of course there’s also just, like, this:

Image (via Kateoplis)

Recipe for a Good Day

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The funny thing about parenting is that just when you think you have it all figured out, a kid stops napping or starts biting, or schedules change, or you change, and it’s almost like you have to start all over, figuring out how to have a good day. That’s my goal lately, a good day. It’s hard to think bigger than that, and when I start considering Childhood or Theories of Brain Development or What Kind of Parent One Ought to Be I get really tired and need a nap. But my kids don’t nap. So I can’t. Instead I spend a lot of energy trying to make each day good. Not perfect, but good. Each day with little kids is a marathon and a lifetime and a work of art and a mess. Inevitably.

Because I seem to have to relearn this every day, I am writing this to remind myself what helps, at this moment in time — as the kids are almost-3 and almost-5 and still home for most of the day and at the end of a long long winter — for a day to be a good one.

1) Stay busy but flexible. This is a real SAHM thing, to be sure. Maybe it’s because my kids are so, how you say, batshit crazy, it always helps us to have a Plan A and a Plan B and a Plan Z. In this matter give them pretend choices. “Do you want to do X or Other X, both of which I have pre-approved?”

2) Remember to take breaks. Book time in bed. Juice breaks at playdates. Bench-sits at museums and parks. You actually have to make it happen and it actually makes a huge difference. There is no nap anymore. Get over it. Remember that some minutes playing math games on Starfall will not suck their imaginations out of their heads. Chillax, Mama. Break time = important.

3) Invest in healthyish convenience food. Because I am sorry, but few things are as enraging as involving the kids in menu planning and grocery shopping just like the thingy you read said to, spending an hour cooking with “helpers” wobbling on chairs in the galley kitchen, all Montesourri-like, only to end up with a huge mess and food that the kids just look at and cry. Try again with the real food in a year. Until then, fuck it, how bad can Annie’s Mac and Cheese every night be? (Do not read the story about the girl who ate only chicken nuggets for 17 years. Do not hang out with the mom whose kid eats bell peppers at the playground like they are apples. Do not click on any BuzzFeed thingies about any kind of food.)

4) Get out everyday. If nothing else, walk to the mailbox or invent something you need to buy at the store that can be scooted to. Even in the winter. Even when they’re sick. Even when the bundling up takes longer than the outside time.

5) See other grownups/text your friends/look at twitter just enough so you stay sane or at least remember that all the parents are feeling crazy.

6) Keep the ratio of art project setup/cleanup to actual kid-entertainment potential in mind. No wants to clean up fucking cloud dough all night.

7) Remember Pinterest is a liar. Most of the internet is a liar. And nothing entertains kids for hours. Nothing.

8) When possible, don’t react. To hitting, to whining, to acting out. Remember Amy Fusselman, who writes in her memoir 8 that when you are parenting small children, you are a robot. When not reacting is impossible, don’t beat yourself up about it. Tell yourself some shit about how it’s good for kids to see you get mad and calm down or something . That has to be constructive somehow, right? Because you’re not actually a robot, are you? And just imagine how entertaining it must be for your neighbors down the hall to hear you yelling “I SAID STOP BITING YOUR SISTER’S BUTT!!” and how pleasant for them to get to feel kind of superior to you. That’s a great gift, really, that you are offering them. You’re welcome, them!

9) Leave the kids alone. I mean not alone alone but they can play together, and they can be screaming one second and resolve it the next, and you will surely be alerted if the skirmish is unresolvable. You didn’t have 2 kids to have 2 people to have to entertain constantly. You had 2 kids so they would play “kid/grownup” long enough for you to tap out a blog post on your phone!

10) Don’t clean up after they are in bed. Make them help even though it sucks and they do a crap-ass job of sorting the toys into the appropriately-labelled bins so that their room looks nothing like the ones on your really excellent Kids’ Rooms Pinterest page, which remember, is a liar anyway. Or at least let the kids see you do it. After they are in bed, that is your time. A coworker once told me, “I don’t have a clean house. That’s the new feminism.” Take out the trash and load the dishwasher and then read that New York Times article about how a clean house is a sign of a wasted life or just skim it and then read an amazing book instead, or make some art, or call someone, or do something crazy like talk to your husband. Fuck cleaning. Seriously. Unless you like it. In which case you’re crazy.

11) When all else fails, look at the kids’ baby pictures together. They love it, you love it, it helps put everything into perspective.

12) Don’t forget the 3:00 pm coffee. That’s the one that makes it all work.

13) Inevitably, on a crappy day, an old lady will stop you on the street and tell you to enjoy every moment. This is crazy of course and only possible to even consider if you’ve completely forgotten what little kids are like. But you can enjoy one moment. There is one magical moment in every shitstorm of a day, and you’ve got to enjoy the hell out of that moment. Remember, if you can, if for only that one moment of the day about all the wonder. All the goddamned crazy this-is-your-life wonder.

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(top image from Emily Winfield Martin’s DREAM ANIMALS.)