Thursday, October 26, 2006

Getting In Touch With My Inner Ma'am, or 40 Is The New Black

Although to my ears it sounds like someone else talking when I say this, I am turning 40 on Saturday. Once when I was teaching an autobiography workshop to retired folks, a gal wrote a piece about her 40th birthday party; the theme had been Death. Her friends dressed in black and rented a hearse to take her out for Scorpion Bowls. Instead of finding this macabre or even funny, I was simply confused. I asked her why death was the theme of her party. Perhaps she thought I was a bit dense, but she was nice enough to hide it. "Oh, you know," she said, "Forty and death just go together like peas in a pod."

Okay. That was a long time ago. These days, for $3.95 any Hollywood gossip magazine is happy to tell you that 40 is the new 30. (Or, if you are fortunate enough to know my in-laws, they will tell you just because they're sweet. Thanks! :)) And I certainly don't feel 40, whatever it's supposed to feel like. I have a few gray hairs, but they're balanced by my girlish breakouts. I have laugh lines, but no furrow between my brows, and for that distinction I am proud. I feel a bit stiff when I stand up suddenly, but I can still dance like a chicken in front of other people on Friday afternoons.

But I can't kid myself. Even five years ago, I got carded in dim restaurants. (Yes, yes, very dim, okay, you've made your point.) My college students were often wide-eyed with shock when I revealed my age. (Of course, anything over 30 is probably hard for them to get their minds around.) But lately, I have been counting, and the tally cannot be ignored: the ratio of "Ma'ams" to "Misses" is now running about 10 to 1. Gulp. It's official: I'm a Ma'am.

You might argue that people are just being polite, deferential to a customer. Sure, sure. But you don't "Ma'am" someone unless you are reasonably certain of their demographic. No 2o-year-old in three tank tops with a Bedazzled cell phone and a wad of gum gets "Ma'am"-ed. At least I don't think so. What does a "Ma'am" look like? Does she wear sweats all the time? Figure lipstick is too time-consuming to reapply? Always have circles under her eyes? Need a Wonderbra but keeps forgetting to buy one? Doesn't know the correct hair products?

Probably my "Ma'am-ness" is a composite of these things and more. The "more" might partially include, let's say, pushing a stroller. With a baby in it. Whose face is covered in Cheddar Bunny dust. I wonder, though, if...and this is kind of creepy if I think about it too long...a Ma'am also has a certain look on her face. A certain expression in her eye, a certain way she smiles. Or doesn't smile, because she's too tired or distracted to remember what was funny. A certain quality that reveals to the world: "I am Ma'am; hear me roar. I eat non-Ma'ams like you for breakfast. Now out of my way so I can go take a nap."

Then I have moments where I know being a "Ma'am" doesn't complete me. For instance, it is almost Halloween. Halloween may be my favorite time of year. As a child, it fell just three days after my birthday, giving the impression that the whole town had finally gotten the news and would be lining up at their front doors to shower me with candy--how did they know it's exactly what I wanted? I continued trick-or-treating until I was 16 years old (that year I dressed as a baby) and, although I was short, could no longer withstand the withering comments. Having to give up this annual event seemed cruel and unnecessary punishment for something I couldn't control.

Jarrah has been getting very excited about Halloween. She doesn't exactly know that, but she knows there's something in the air. Our neighbors have pumpkin lights out, and she points to them every time we leave the house and exclaims, "Dzeh-zeh!" (Your guess is as good as mine.) She touches each real pumpkin she sees, marveling that something she'd never noticed before is suddenly everywhere. She points frantically at the black cats and witches that hang in every establishment she frequents. And while she's still refusing to try on the perfectly adorable Tigger costume I bought her, she delights in carrying her plastic pumpkin candy holder around the house, full of pilfered electronic devices.

There's only one person more excited about Halloween than Jarrah. Today on the car radio they played "Thriller," which puts me in a mood that might only be understandable if you also graduated from highschool in 1984. I did my best to drive safely while performing the monster moves from the Michael Jackson video. And in the rear view mirror, I spied Jarrah, jazz hands aloft, doing them right along with me. I got tears in my eyes, Readers. Truly.

Now, In This, Our Year Of Becoming A Ma'am, I am able to reclaim my rightful place on the doorsteps of southern California, dressed in a wig and feather boa, looking as un-Ma'am-like as I can be. In fact, I'm realizing that I might not have an inner Ma'am at all, just an outer Ma'am.

And the birthday? The theme is going to be Life, baby. My darling husband, under heavy threat of copious guilt, has planned some surprises for me (and to give you an idea how special that is, the last time he surprised me we got engaged.) I am tantalized by tiny hints from my near and dear that fun is in store. But I want to thank my friend Cheri for giving me some valuable perspective on birthdays recently. I don't know what's going to happen, but I feel uncommonly serene. Whatever it is, I'm going to be all about the love and appreciation. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, October 23, 2006

And The Mome Raths Outgrabe

Reason #1,067 why my life is weirder than other people's:

The gym on Friday evening. I am riding an endorphin buzz from a very vigorous NIA class and a subsequent hot, steamy shower. The scene finds me zoning out in front of the mirror, dotting on concealer in a meditative manner. I can sense someone to my right but we are ignoring each other--I think--in the tactful way one does in locker rooms.

"I did something really interesting today." At first I'm not even sure she's talking to me, but then I realize she has turned to face me and is only a couple feet away. I reluctantly drag my gaze from my pinkish visage and apply it to her face, as politeness seems to demand. I don't wait long for the pay-off:

"I ate half an avocado..."

There is probably less than a second that transpires between this phrase and the one that follows, but that is more time than it takes me to ascertain that I've made a terrible error in interrupting my ablutions. I am actually slightly stunned, as if I've been gently slapped, by the raw beauty of this non-sequitur. But the rest of the sentence is shortly forthcoming:

"..and the other half I put on my face. Then I coated that with buttermilk, and I put some olive oil on, too."

Now my attention is divided into two nearly equal halves: the half that wonders if she is, genuinely, crazy (but do crazy people work out at the gym?) and the other half that is plunged into a wave of nostalgia for the days when I used to wash my hair in mayonnaise because Seventeen magazine said it was a good idea. It wasn't.

Now she is saying something about "incredible softness" and seems to have shifted her focus to her decolletage, but there's a roaring in my ears and I can barely hear her. Then, a single directive pierces the fog:

"Feel!" She thrusts her shiny-looking, shelf-like bosom, clad in some sort of scoop-neck leotard, directly into my air space. Readers, it's moments like these that I am convinced that I am part of some kind of cosmic test: how much embarrassment can I experience in any five second window and not implode?

And I ask...what would you do? Seriously, what would you do? I make the only choice I feel is available: I poke her swiftly in the chestal region with my index finger. "Wow! Soft!"

"It's because it has alpha-hydroxy acids."

"Mmm!" I am reduced to Jarrah-speak.

Wherein I Am Sorely Tried

This weekend was the hardest trial of parenting yet. I'm not saying it won't get harder; I know I am but a naive waif on that score, but man, this was tough. And since many of you have read here how we fared for two weeks in a hotel room in China with a new baby, I'll have you know that this was harder. Why, dear Readers? Because in China, David and I were WELL. By some miracle, the two of us sailed through three cities, two and a half weeks, and seven plane flights with nary a sniffle or pang of stomachache.

We've been home nearly nine months, and while we've had our ups and downs, and one of the three of us has occasionally been under the weather, we've avoided that other certainty of life (along with Death and Taxes) that lurks where you least expect it: Food Poisoning.

Now, I don't know for certain how we contracted the dread FP. All I know is, Saturday afternoon we were having a grand time with friends at an outdoor social event, and by Saturday evening, something was rotten in the state of Denmark. "I think I'm going to throw up tonight," I told David. "Why do you say that?" "Because I haven't been hungry all day."

David looked skeptical. He asked if I was currently nauseous, and when I said no, his skepticism increased. Ah, you'd think after eight years in my company, he would know that a day in which I go longer than three hours without clamoring for a snack is indeed a sign of impending doom. But I have known myself longer than that, and I knew, Readers. I knew.

After dinner I threw up, right on schedule, and soon after David began complaining of stomach pains. Now, he's a very empathetic man, but since we'd eaten the same lunch, I was concerned. We both took to bed on the early side, forgoing a week's worth of TV stashed in our DVR.

In the morning, I felt even worse, and so did he. And here was the rub: a certain not-quite-two-year-old in residence was footloose and fancy free at seven a.m., and not the slightest bit interested in our gastric distress. Nope, not even a little. I have chopped up toddler meals when I'm falling over with exhaustion. I have changed poopy diapers when my head was as stuffed as a trussed turkey. But Readers, I have not done these things while wracked with waves of nausea. In fact, in all my years, I've done precious few things while in this state, a list of which can be concisely printed here:

1. Moaned
2. Groaned
3. Curled on the bathroom rug for hours at a time
4. Attempted to sleep, or at least to remain as still as possible

There you have it. My experience with nausea has been extremely self-centered, to say the least. There is no one else in the world when I feel the urge to vomit coming on. But now, suddenly, that is utterly, profoundly, No Longer True.

Jarrah was as perky as ever Sunday morning. She wanted a large breakfast. She wanted roughhousing on the rug. She wanted to play with blocks and hear stories. She was beyond miffed that no wholesome outing had been planned for her disportment. I thank my lucky stars that when I tossed her in the crib just before noon, over an hour before she usually goes down, she settled down to sleep immediately, and David and I both passed out for a blissful three hours in which, inexplicably, she didn't make a sound.

The sleep helped a bit, enough for me to think a family outing to the park would be a good idea. As we were preparing to go, I started feeling not quite right, and had the foresight to ask David to get me a plastic bag for the car. He returned with one that had a small hole. "It has a hole," I told him. "So don't use it," he responded. Clever man. But, again, sadly, with the not knowing me very well. I would never have asked for that bag if it hadn't really seemed necessary.

Sure enough, we'd just pulled onto the freeway when the bag became very necessary indeed. So necessary that Jarrah started screaming from the back seat, perhaps concerned that her mommy had met the Exorcist, or maybe just annoyed that I was drowning out "Victor Vito." At any rate, 2006 will go down as the year for many Firsts: First trip to China. First child. First romp in the ball pit. First episode of hurling in a moving vehicle. The latter is one I do not care to repeat.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Home Equity

Jarrah has developed a strong sense of fairness. It goes like this: if I ask her to do something, I have to do the same thing. Exactly.

When we get to music class, I take her shoes off because otherwise she stands on my legs during circle time and pinches them with her sneakers. Well, fine, but after her shoes are off, she points at my feet and says: "Mmm." "I have to take my shoes off?" I ask, needlessly. "Yesh." I am then the only barefoot mom in the class, but we all make concessions.

The teachers have asked the children to wear nametags (which are prepared before our arrival) so they can personalize the songs. All righty. But when I slap Jarrah's nametag to her hoodie, she points to the pile of blank stickers and says--you guessed it--"Mmm." "Mommy has to wear a name tag?" "Uh-huh." I write "SAM" on my sticker (again, the only mom so adorned) and slap it on my hoodie, feeling like a moron.

I am wearing the hoodie, by the way, because when I poked Jarrah's arm through the sleeve of hers before getting in the car this morning, she reached into the passenger seat with the other arm and extracted mine, dangling it from a finger and looking at me meaningfully.

If she sits down to examine a rock or blade of grass or chunk of driftwood (as children are wont to do) she pats the sidewalk next to her. Pat, pat, pat. She'll keep patting, patient as ketchup, until I sit down on the ground next to her, hoping my lower back doesn't seize up on the way down. Then and only then is she free to stare at the item in question for five minutes at a time, ignoring me completely.

The new policy can come in handy. For several weeks, I would say "Time to wash hands!" when we came in from the park and she'd react by stomping her feet and bawling. But one day I just said, "Jarrah, Mommy needs to wash her hands. Wanna come?" She did. "Wow, my hands are getting so clean. Wanna try it?" Up onto the stepstool she went, and punched a little hand under the running water. When you put it that way, Mommy, I guess it's only right.

Usually I don't mind these "requests." After all, there's very little noise involved, and she is easily satisfied. But every now and again I feel resistant. A couple days ago, I took her socks off when we came in the door because she has been sprinting across our hardwood floors and sliding into walls and furniture from lack of traction. Well, okay Mommy, but "Mmm." "I have to take my socks off?" "Yeah." "But my feet are cold." She gave me a look, which seemed to say, "And that is relevant here because...?" "Oh, all right. Here they go. They're off. Happy now?"

She smiles at me. "Yeah." Very happy.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Laundry Day

I know I'm the song lady (could it be the suppressed bard in me? ;) but I had another musical moment tonight. In a coda to my laundry post, we've now had a second opinion on our loud, dirty washer and the gentleman, in a charmingly thick Eastern European accent of indeterminate origin, said (and I'm paraphrasing here): "I could take your money, and a lot of it, but do yourself a favor and get a new machine."

So, our picaresque journey led us (not for the first time) tonight to Sear's, and a young man named Romeo, who was all alone on his balcony (I know, wrong way around) waiting for us to appear in the moonlight. David and I tag-teamed between Jarrah and negotiating the details of the water bill rebate on our environmentally-friendly, Consumer Reports-approved new Kenmore front-loader.

Jarrah was in rare form. She made me open 14 ovens (I counted) while repeating the same phrase: "Mmmm, what's for dinner?" When I showed her a catalog for garbage disposals and said "Wanna read a good book?" she nodded briskly, turned her face away, and began to back her bum in my general direction--the signal for "Sit your ass down, little mama, because I plan to enjoy this story in comfort." She moonwalked and break danced (as my former hip-hop teacher used to say, she "went to the floor") and brought me several armloads of plastic napkin rings from an undisclosed location. She also brought me a stack of folded Levi's, and a Tow Mater engineer's cap.

While I was replacing the purloined goods, I decided to show Jarrah how funny it is when Mommy runs backward, and then suddenly runs forward, the better to grab a hysterical little monkey and squeeze her, my, what big teeth we have. I was smothering her and roaring like a dinosaur at one point when I tuned in to a snippet of Whitney Houston song:

I get so emotional, baby
Every time I think of you
I get so emotional, baby
Ain't it shocking what love can do?

I sang a bit of this to Jarrah with some practically professional Paula Abdul-style choreography circa 1988, but my voice broke a little bit on "shocking." Which is surprising, see, because Whitney is right in my range. ;)

Monday, October 09, 2006

Stunt Double

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Okay.

Today at My Kid's Clubhouse, Jarrah's friend Anton got very excited about some plastic dinosaurs. He leaped up and down in his socks (socks are required) and then slid into home base on the slippery linoleum. Only home base wasn't there. He wasn't hurt, but I reached out a hand to help him up. This was followed by a crescendo-ing howl from behind me, and Jarrah came tearing into view. She positioned herself in the general area of Anton's spill, and kicked her legs like a Rockette, only both at the same time. Down she went, like a vaudevillian on a banana peel. She lay on the floor, looking pleased with herself. "Okay," I said, resisting the urge to applaud because I don't think 21-month-olds can read sarcasm. "You know how to fall, too. Hooray!"

A little later, I sneaked a peak at my New Yorker (doesn't that make me sound all cultured and whatnot? 'Course I should add that when it arrives these days I plunk it onto the kitchen counter with the thought "Huh. That's the one with all the words.") on one of the curiously uncomfortable video rockers. I could see Jarrah in the corner of my eye, busily frying up a whole plastic chicken in the back of the plastic RV. Seconds later, however, she threw herself into the rocker next to me.

"Hi," she said.

"Hi," I said.

"Mmm!" she said, pointing at my magazine.

"You want a magazine?" I asked. She nodded. "Okay, then." I handed her a copy of Real Simple (I want to go on record and say this one was not mine. I will own up to US Weekly and In Style but agree with the mythical Libby Gelman-Waxner that "Real Simple sounds like the lifestyle publication for people with head injuries.") She opened it, and draped it over her lap. Then she leaned back in the rocker with a prolonged sigh. Her bangs covered her eyes. (Her barrette, as usual, was newly lost--do I have to buy them by the pound?)

"Had a hard day?" I asked. She nodded. "Feels good to relax with some light reading, doesn't it?" She nodded again, and grinned. Then we both lay back in our rockers, stealing a few precious moments to escape the weight of the world.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Wonder Down Under

Here's a post for my Australian friends (and for those of you who recently joined the party, that's where Jarrah's family on her, um, paternal side lives):

Jarrah is a massive fan of the Wiggles. The four Australian men in their colorful jerseys pick flowers, knead dough, talk to the squirrels in Central Park, and can do no wrong in Jarrah's eyes. She was recently thrilled to receive a Wiggles DVD from her Nanna and Granddad that arrived in their Sunday paper--such is the ubiquity of the quartet on that continent and every other! She can mimic every move of "Rock-a-Bye Your Bear," their first hit, including the vigorous shushing at the end. Recently she's begun miming a steering wheel with great urgency to indicate that she wants me to sing "Toot-Toot, Chugga-Chugga, Big Red Car" for her. She feels this great urgency about 50 times a day, Readers.

Today we were watching a regular segment called "Dance with Dorothy the Dinosaur." Two of the Wiggles's "friends" help Dorothy demonstrate a different dance each show. We've seen "The Airplane," "The Clean-Up," and "The Cha-Cha-Cha." Normally she watches this segment with vague impatience because there are no bonafide Wiggles in it. But not today. Today's dance was "The Kangaroo."

A young man and woman demonstrated three things that kangaroos like to do: hop around, pick grass and nibble it, and scratch themselves behind the ears. Without any warning, Jarrah hunkered down in position and began hopping bouncily around the room. I was just about to say, "Wow! Good kangaroo!" when she plucked some grass and nibbled it from her paw in a precise imitation of the show. Next she used that paw to scratch herself behind the ear a couple times. Lather, rinse, repeat. I was hysterically impressed, stunned by how much she resembled a kangaroo. She hopped over to me and offered me some grass, smacking her lips with freakish cuteness. Then she used her paw to scratch me behind the ear.

When I visited Australia in 2002, I got to meet some kangaroos up close and personal when we visited David's Aunt Cheryl and Uncle David down south at Kingtree Lodge (hi! :)) We fed them some apple and even got to pet them. The little ones had long, lush, horse-like lashes, a bit like Jarrah, as a matter of fact. Hmmmm.

I can't wait for Jarrah to meet some real kangaroos. Though hopefully they won't mind if Jarrah eats all the apple.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Stage Mother

I've quickly grown accustomed to having a fearless child. Yes, I'll walk straight into an oncoming wave. Yes, I'll plow through a tower of blocks at the bottom of the ramp with my plastic car. Yes, I'll shimmy up a rock-climbing wall meant for kids a foot taller than me. I will do all this and more and fie in the face of danger. Bring it on!

So I've been a bit bemused in recent weeks when Jarrah shakes her head. No, you don't want to go in the water? No, you don't want to climb up there? No, you don't want to walk across hot coals in your bare feet? Hmmm. That's funny. Jim never drinks instant at home.

I've ignored the vagaries of change, however, preferring my original smug perspective: my daughter, not even two, is bold and brave and fearless. She's a tiny Magellan.

This weekend we went out for pancakes with Mary, Paul and Joy for David's birthday. Jarrah is plenty brave about pancakes. She dispatched several, along with an egg, some potatoes and several pounds of cherries from my crepes that we are still paying for. She was in fine spirits when we headed across the street to a seasonal Pumpkin Patch, complete with rides and attractions for the youngsters. I was drawn to the giant slide. David said it's okay if I tell you it was 50 feet high. I didn't measure it or anything, but that sucker was HIGH. It was soft, though, you know, blown up. "Jarrah, would you like to go on the really big slide?" I asked. Vigorous shake of the head. I mean vigorous. I ignored it. "It'll be fun. You'll go with Mommy." David got the camera ready and Mary, Joy, Jarrah and myself ventured forth. The "ladder," as it were, was a mesh grid of what looked like seat belts, flush with a really steep ramp. You had to dig your fingers and toes under it to avoid plummeting backwards. But Jarrah knew nothing of that, because I was behind her. "Pull!" I directed cheerfully, sweating copiously in the midday sun as I hauled myself and bolstered my nearly 30 lb. child in front of me. It was slow going, but we made it. At the top, all four of us got situated and went down together. It was really, really fast. I was exhilarated, but actually kind of scared. I laughed hysterically at the bottom. Jarrah looked at me, took my cue, and laughed, too, but a bit uncertainly.

We had one more to go. Again, with the pulling and hauling and sweating. I could barely manage the ladder myself, so it didn't make sense to expect Jarrah to. At the top, I caught my breath for a second while I hoisted Jarrah into position. But Jarrah knows from slides. They are fun, and Mommy waits at the bottom to catch you. Off she went, very deliberately.

Oops. I watched helplessly as she plunged to the bottom alone, whipping from side to side. She came to a stop, perfectly safe, nowhere near the edge, but completely prone and sort of upside down. And she cried. She cried and cried and cried. I had to wait for someone to pull her off so I could hurry down and comfort her. She held on to me and cried into my hair for several minutes, totally unlike her even at times when she's genuinely cracked her head. I felt just awful. But a teeny, tiny horrible part of me thought, What's the big deal? It's just a slide. What's all the fuss about?

After a while, we decided the girls might enjoy the circular swing. It's the one where the swings hang on a kind of rack in a circle and go around all together. Personally, I love them, but this one was sized for young 'uns. Jarrah had calmed down and seemed curious and interested as we were buckling her into her seat. The ride started up and she was smiling when she came around the first time. The second revolution found her enthusiasm slightly dampened. The third time the little face was crunching. And the fourth we were in full sob territory.

They were nice enough to stop the swing right away, and we took her off. She continued to cry for a while. I actually believe that if she had just gone on the swing and not the evil slide, she wouldn't have been upset. But I think the slide was a lasting trauma, and at that point she felt we were sending her into the void to do every scary, unknown thing alone.

Luckily, that's not true. But I have decided I have to work on myself now. Jarrah is fine either way, fearless or cautious or somewhere in-between. But I've learned that her personality, which I've only been studying a few months, is complicated. I'm not going to be able to pin her down that easily. She will be as changeable as clouds, and I have to be okay with that.

Sometimes, I feel like living with a toddler is as much of a whole new world as being one.