“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”Gilda Radner

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween Really IS...

I know there are people who LOVE Halloween. LOVE as in, they say the L and then the rest of the word, the "ove" part, comes out silently. I feel that way about summer. And French fries and sushi and red wine. But I don't feel that way about Halloween.

This all started when I was seven years old, the exact age of my oldest son right now. It had to do with a cheerleader costume, a puffy coat, and my mother's less than considerate sense of humor. That, for the record, was the last time I trick-or-treated as a child. My mom, who HATES (only pronounce the H and then silently mouth the "ates" part) Halloween, had finally won. "But you were only seven!" you might cry. Yes, that's true, but my sister was thirteen. My mother had been battling the holiday for six years before the cheerleader incident, so we can give her some credit.

I was bitter and angry for many years following second grade, convinced that Halloween always could have been fun if it hadn't been so heartlessly ruined for me. But then I became a middle school teacher. Middle schoolers have a rather obnoxious sense of humor as it is, you know, probably made worse by the fact that they always seem to find themselves so original. Yes, seventh grade boy, you really must be the first one who ever got a running start and then jumped up to tap the top of the door frame. Surely no one ever thought of that before you did.

Some teachers really get into the holiday, and I salute them. I really do. But being the poop I apparently am, I could never really get past the fact that the tween girls wanted to be slutty and the tween boys were frankly stupid, and everyone seemed to think it was all a big excuse to make poor choices and act like they were five. And you know, the point of middle school is to sort of train them out of making poor choices and acting like they're five. So Halloween seemed, to me, to be a little counterproductive.

Then I had Joey.

Joey brought back the magic for me, I can tell you. His first Halloween, he was an adorable, cuddly monkey who slept through the whole ordeal but still managed to score his parents candy based on cuteness alone. His second Halloween, he was Roo from Winnie the Pooh. The best part of that costume was the little tail in the back. I also enjoyed the fact that his name is Joey, which is also another word for a baby kangaroo, but most people didn't appreciate that. Or even know it. "Oh, really?" they'd say, and look at me blankly for a long uncomfortable second before turning away to find someone more interesting.

Joey's third Halloween is actually one of my favorite nights of my life. It was the first year he chose his own costume, and the first year we let him stay up late and actually trick-or-treat. He was so excited in his little pirate costume (deemed by everyone who saw him the cutest pirate ever; even by the parents of other little pirates, which I found terribly satisfying). I was actually pregnant with Noah that year, and had had some complications just before Halloween, but I still insisted on walking house to house with Joey. The weather was mild, the stars were shining, and my little boy, I felt sure, had the brightest and best "TRICK OR TREAT!" I'd ever heard.

But then everybody started school. You want to know what can really kill the Halloween magic? Classrooms full of costume-bedecked children. Counting paper cups. Spilled Hawaiian punch (dude, lose the red dye, PLEASE). And...wait for it...TREAT BAGS. Oh, lord, the treat bags! I never even knew that treat bags were a Thing until I showed up AFTER Joey's first party in pre-K and all the super tidy, organized, experienced moms were self-righteously handing out these amazing little bags, themed for the holiday, containing darling little candies and stupid plastic toys. Like spider rings and bouncing eyeballs. Do you know, children shouldn't even have to GO trick-or-treating after they've been to their school party? There's certainly no need if the interest is in candy gain. After the parties alone I think I could supply a small third-world country with desserts for the rest of time. Not that small third-world countries need a lifetime supply of desserts. They'd probably rather have...chicken. Or money. Anyway.

I don't want you getting the idea that I hate Halloween like my mother did. No, that would be wrong. I would never, for example, follow my trick-or-treaters in the car, roll down the window after EACH house, and call out, "Are you done? Can we go home now? Aren't you cold?" I would also never stuff my pretty little girl into a puffy coat and then her cheerleading costume and follow her to each house and shout to whoever answered the door, "ISN'T IT FUNNY? SHE'S A FAT CHEERLEADER! BWAHAHAHAHAHA!" But today, as I packed Joey's change of clothes for school, had him practice getting in and out of the costume without ripping it, and wrote him a note to pick him up because who KNOWS what would happen on the bus (hear me moan: Oh, God, the bus, I hate the bus!), and then dressed Noah in his costume, tucked him into the car, and loaded up with napkins packs, jugs of Hawaiian punch (seriously though, why dye it red?--it's just as tasty and fun without being red!), treat bags, and, cruelly, an additional gift bag for a child whose birthday party we missed, I thought...do people actually find this fun? Because, and I hesitate only a second before making such a declaration but, it's NOT. It's a total pain in the @$$.

I felt guilty for even thinking this way as I drove through the morning traffic to drop Noah off at pre-K. After all, I do tend to stress over ordinary things more than ordinary people, and I'm self-aware enough to recognize that as a flaw worth working on. And I do. Work on it, that is. But then, as I walked into my children's school carrying oh-so-many bags, my insanely happy little Ben 10 alien skipping alongside me, I looked around. First I noticed dozens of other insanely happy little children, all dressed as robustly as my own child: Ariels and witches and Jessie cowgirls and Batmen. But two or three steps behind each child? A huffing, puffing, game-faced parent laden down with as many bags and cupcake boxes and Hawaiian punch jugs as I was carrying.

I delivered my child and the exorbitant amount of goodies and walked back to my car, smiling to myself at my newfound knowledge: It's not just me. Halloween, for all its magic and good points, really is a pain in the @$$.

A shot of our pumpkin. It's sideways. I don't care.

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Crossing the Streams

I know I go on a bit about how different it must be to have little girls than it is to have little boys. I must admit, though, that I feel hesitant every time I send such decrees out into the vast blankness I imagine Internetland to be. After all, I have three nieces who I love desperately and spend a great deal of time with. They are not simple, easy people and I know it, and I think my sister and sister-in-law (as well as my own mother who has to put up with me) are brave, strong, and amazing people to have to deal with some of the things that come with raising strong-minded, strong-willed, completely independent little ladies.


I will say that what I overheard in the bathroom during a recent enactment of our bedtime routine would probably never happen with little girls. I was gathering up pajamas and socks while my boys, who I have been figuring are now big and old enough to do so, were getting out of their clothes and, well, "going to the bathroom," before their bath. As I was leaning deep into Joey's armoire to find a pair of socks, I heard him say, "Yikes! I have to go really bad!"

This is something that annoys me, because I know both my boys have a tendency to "hold it" too long. It was a habit I had for years, priding myself on my superior strong bladder, until one day I woke up with kidney stones and have never been able to look back. Now I cringe in shame at my inferior weak bladder.

Imagine my irritation, then, when I heard a bit of shoving and heard Noah's reply, "No! I have to go really bad!"

Irritation gave way to horror when Joey said, "Let's just both go. Let's see if we can cross our streams!"

"NO," came Noah's emphatic voice. "Mommy says we're not shupposed to. She says it's messy."

"But it's so cool!" Joey insisted.

At this point, I could definitely hear one stream, and continued shoving. I dropped all socks and pajamas and hurried into the bathroom. Noah was just taking aim as Joey's pee thundered away. That's another thing. Why do boys pee so loudly? Is it a distance thing? The farther you are from the toilet, then...?

"Boys!" I said, panicked. "Never, ever do that!" In my haste to reach the bathroom in time, my tidy bun had slipped from the top of my head down one side, and I was standing with my hands up in the air, "Vogue" style. No matter. The necessity of bathroom cleanliness trumps personal appearance any day.

Both boys snapped around to look at me. But do you know what happens when boys are going to the bathroom and turn around to look at something other than the toilet? A far bigger mess than that caused by crossing streams.

"No!" I cried. "Watch what you're doing!"

But it was too late. A mess was everywhere. On the back of the toilet, all over the rim, and on the floor. Somehow, both boys were dry. And completely unbothered.

Noah shrugged one shoulder and made for the bath, which by this time was full and cheerfully bubbly, as if to mock me and the mess I now had to clean.

"Sorry, Mom," he said, swinging one leg into the water. "But you know. Accidents happen."

"Mom doesn't understand, Noah," Joey said, climbing in after his brother. "She's a girl."

Monday, October 8, 2012

Joey and The Half-Blood Prince

As I may have mentioned before, my seven-year-old son is reading the Harry Potter series. We began when he was in kindergarten, innocently enough reading Chapter One of The Sorcerer's Stone: The Boy Who Lived. How heavy was a boy who lived in the cupboard under the stairs? I never anticipated that by the end of first grade, Joey would have already completed book three, or that he would have done it independent of me. I'm an eighth grade English teacher, but I haven't seen many readers like Joey.

I was prepared for him to watch the first movie, and the second movie. My rule is that you must read the book before you see the movie. It is not exclusive to Harry Potter, but it is not all-encompassing, either. There are, I'm sure, plenty of movies we've seen that began as books and we just never knew. But some things, some stories, are Important.

Joey finished the fourth book somewhere in August. I don't want to spoil the series for anyone who does not know it, but I will say that it is in the fourth book that things become dramatically heavier for the hero of the stories. Joey, however, handled it well. He asked questions where he should have, and was able to explain to us important themes and concepts. I had my husband watch the movie with him, though. I admit that I was too afraid of how emotional it might be for Joey to watch these events play out in front of him. His father has a way of making him feel safe even in such moments (where I break down and sob myself and probably scare the hell out of children everywhere), and so I knew it was the better choice.

He finished the fifth book by the end of September. I watched the movie with him while he was home sick. I think the hardest thing for him to watch was Harry's first kiss. Joey can handle fighting and drama and loss, but he hates kissing.

I was surprised in the car today when we were driving around to look for "Halloween Houses" (something we started doing when Joey was about three, and has resulted in me hearing a tiny voice chant, "Halloween Hooooooouuuuuuuse" every time I see a pumpkin or mesh ghost) and Joey asked, "Mom, have you ever been to a funeral?"

It was seemingly out of the blue. I actually connected the question more with the plastic Frankensteins and streaming ghost decorations than with any thought of Joey reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It was not until bedtime tonight when Joey handed the book to me, earmarked at the last chapter, and pointed to the paragraph where he'd left off earlier this afternoon.

I'd thought it odd when he'd brought the book downstairs this morning to continue reading after the wake-up hour. Normally, he reads by flashlight until dawn, and is then allowed to come down and start his day. But not today. Today he kept reading.

Today, for the first time in six books, he also accidentally tore a page.

He was devastated. He brought the book to me apologetically, his head hung low, the book thrust out from his chest as though he couldn't bear to look at it. "I'm so sorry I wrecked your book," he'd said.

"It's just a page," I'd said. "It happens."

I couldn't understand how he could be this upset over something so easily fixed. All the little details added up all day, and I didn't put them together until bedtime, when he handed me that earmarked page and asked me to read it to him.

Again, I refuse to be a series spoiler. I will only say this: it was in this scene that the merpeople sang in grief, the centaurs shot a tribute of arrows into a weeping sky, and Harry would never be the same again. And if you have read the series, and you are a fan, you will never be the same again, either.

Side by side, Joey and I read, my voice filling the air with the sad words of the book in front of us. My voice became thick and my cheeks were wet. I have learned not to be embarrassed by my emotions in front of Joey; he completely understands (both the emotionalness of a moment and of his crazy mom). I read as long as I could, and then set the book down. I looked at Joey.

Unlike me, his eyes were dry. I asked, "Joey, does it make you sad?"

He said, "Yes...."


"But it doesn't make me cry."

I understood this immediately. After reading chapter one of The Sorcerer's Stone, and later, a chapter called "The Mirror of Erised," Joey had cried late into the night, calling me to his room several times. It was in these chapters, early in the series, that Joey had been tortured by the idea of a little boy losing his  mother and father. That he had empathized with--because he most values the love of his family. But while he is able to comprehend the later story, he cannot relate to such grief.

I said, "No, Joey. But it makes me feel good. It means nothing truly terrible has happened in your life, and so you can't really feel how much things like this can hurt."

Joey knew what I meant right away. He climbed into his bed, shifting his bottom down so his head could rest on his pillow. I pulled his Batman comforter up to his chin and straightened it on one side so it covered him evenly.

"What would happen if they asked me at school to name the worst thing that ever happened to me?" he asked, a bit of worry in his voice. "I wouldn't be able to. The worst thing ever is when you're mad at me."

My heart hurt a bit at this, and then I grimaced, imagining that if he said that out loud at school, adults who didn't know me might think me being mad at Joey was something far worse than what it actually is: a little boy who has not known anything bad in his life.

But more than that, I felt grateful. Every parent wants to protect a child from the bad things in the world, and so far I have been quite lucky. So I kissed his forehead firmly and said, "No one would ever ask you to do that at school. And it is much more important to be a person who spends time thinking about good things than a person who wastes time thinking of bad things."

Joey smiled then. "That would be a hard question to answer, too," he said. "I could never pick the best thing that ever happened to me. There's just too many good things."

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Water Bottles

This is my second and last year off of work. And it IS my last year off of work, unless I miraculously come upon a million dollars in the next ten months. Last year, my year off seemed like this amazing blessing because Joe's job was in Pittsburgh and I was in and out of the hospital with those stupid kidney stones (SKS, as I've come to think of them), and it was like, Oh my God, what if I had had to be teaching, too?? I seriously can't imagine what it would have been like to have that kidney stone pain AND walk into a classroom full of middle schoolers AND come home and be a "single" mom.

THIS year, Joe's job is back in Buffalo AND my kidney stones, as of July third, are silent and invisible (I just can't believe they're all gone, since I've had these problems pretty much my whole life). Therefore, I am doing all the cool and amazing things I meant to be doing last year. Like taking Noah to the zoo just because, and learning how to bake a whole chicken and make perfect mashed potatoes, and making everyone wholesome breakfasts and packed lunches. And I have a dog, which I'm mostly excited about (except when I'm not, and then it kind of stinks).

Today, Joey forgot his water bottle when he left for school. Water bottles are all the rage these days, aren't they? Remember when we were kids and went to school and were just thirsty a lot of the time? Sometimes we'd ask if we could go get a drink from the drinking fountain, but unless I was choking my teachers always said NO. Now children are permitted, nay, encouraged, to bring water bottles to school lest they be too parched to learn.

As a germophobe, I must admit I'm a fan of the water bottle because I think drinking fountains are gross and horrible harborers of plague and disease. Noah came home after his first day of school and announced, "I used a DRINKING FOUNTAIN!" and I nearly fell out of my chair. "No, no, no," I told him with fervor, "we don't use the drinking fountain. They are germy." Noah thought about this for a minute and then said, "No, I don't think so." Like he's such an authority on what's germy. Like he's been to medical school recently and might know more than me.

Or maybe like he lacks my super control freak germophobic paranoid insanity.


When I looked on the kitchen counter today and realized that Joey didn't have his water bottle, and considered that he does actually have a cough, I decided that I would bring him the water bottle at school. Noah gets dropped off at 8:30, so I was going to be there anyway, and I could just tuck the bottle into his backpack. I've seen other moms do this before, and it seems to be pretty standard. Kid forgets something, mom brings it and tucks it into the backpack. (Backpacks and coats are hung on hooks in the hall. Very convenient.)

When Noah and I arrived at school, he joined his class's line, already formed in the foyer. His teacher greeted me warmly. She already knows me because I have visited the class twice this year so far: once to read Where the Wild Things Are and once to help chaperone a field trip to the firehouse. She glanced down at the water bottle and said, "Did Joey forget something?" and I said, "Yes, I thought I'd bring it to him." She gestured toward his classroom, just down the hall and said, "You might just catch him before they head to church."

I trotted down the hall to Joey's classroom, beautifully adorned by construction paper leaves and pictures of the children at work--gotta love the digital age--and saw the children lining up at the door. Joey's class knows me from his birthday parties and from seeing me wait in the driveway as he gets off the bus. They called out, "Joey, your mom's here!" Once, I might have worried this would irritate the teacher--that a mom showed up mid-day for something as absurd as a forgotten water bottle--but that isn't the mentality of this school. Instead, I was met with smiles all around, and Joey rushed to the door, grabbed his water bottle, and said gratefully, "Thanks for remembering, Mom!"

I walked out of the building with conflicting feelings. I love that I was able to do that--see both my boys in the middle of the day, and be a part of their school life as well as their home life. That it was as natural as anything for me to walk into school for something as small as a forgotten water bottle. Most of all, that I could do it. Because two years ago, and next year, that was and will be an impossibility. A forgotten water bottle will be a regular occurrence, and a thing to put up with, because no one will do anything about it. I've already acknowledged that I think water bottles are a luxury kids can survive without, but I also love that I have this chance, this one year, to just bring in the stupid water bottle. For my kids to know, "Hey, my mom can be there for me if I need her to be."

As I pulled out of the parking lot and headed home for a precious two hours alone (which I spend doing laundry and cleaning and occasionally writing this blog), I felt the good feelings float away. I was thinking of myself next year, and of all the moms out there who do not have the luxury that I have to be at home. I was remembering what it felt like to say goodbye to teary-eyed children as I rushed out the door in the morning, to see a kid get off the bus with the wrong coat, or with no coat, because I didn't have a chance to check the weather report that morning. To be in the middle of teaching about the difference between their, there, and they're (because they ARE different and it matters, damn it) and have the phone ring and hear Joey's school say, "Joey threw up and needs to go home," and have total panic strike my heart as I think, "My God, I'm twenty miles away and I'm talking about homophones and my own kid needs me and how the hell am I going to take care of this?" I remembered what it felt like to arrive home every day, mentally drained from the homophones and middle schoolers, and have my kids say, "Mom, you're finally home! Can you get us a snack? Can we go to Target? Can you do a puzzle? Can you help me with my homework? What's for dinner? Mom, today was 'Wear Red' day and you forgot--I was the only kid who wasn't wearing red."

Or the one that hurt the most: "All the moms came to school today, except mine. Will you ever be able to come?"

Once, while I was still teaching, I read an article written by a stay-at-home mom. She was all outraged by working moms who said they two full-time jobs: working AND being a mom. She said, "Don't call yourself a full-time mom until you've actually done it full-time," or something to that effect.

Well, I'm going to tell you the truth. Moms who go to work every day ARE working two full-time jobs.  You don't ever get to stop being a mom. I didn't get to stop thinking about Joey and Noah when twenty-five twelve-year-olds were sitting in front of me asking me, "Why do we even HAVE English class, because we already, like know how to speak English?" You're expected to do two completely different things as well as the people who are only expected to do ONE thing in the same amount of time. Your own children still have to be cleaned, fed, and performing beautifully at whatever. They have to be involved in fifty activities and arrive smiling and on time and prepared. At your job, YOU have to be on time and smiling and prepared (preferably fed and cleaned) and performing beautifully. Every day is a mountain climb, and every day you feel the stress of that climb. Not every day do you feel like you've made it to the top, or are going to make it.

So this blog entry is about me saying: Yes, I love my life right now. This has been an opportunity, and a privilege, and a huge financial sacrifice I will never, ever regret. But KUDOS and SALUTES and a TON of credit goes to the ranks of moms I will join next year. You are unbelievable. You are amazing. You are doing more than other people can possibly comprehend. And the reason they can't comprehend it is because you ARE so good at it, you make it look normal and easy.

And in the meantime, I'm going to continue to enjoy water bottles and beautifully packed lunches while I can. It isn't easy--I'm not saying it's easy--but it's certainly nice to be able to give one thing my all.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Little MAWNster

Noah and Joey, like their mom, have quite a love for storytelling. Both boys can be found, on any given day, bent over a pile of papers with a pen gripped in one hand, completely lost in a world that they have created in the deep mystical clouds of their minds.

Joey prefers typing, and Noah, who cannot yet spell very well, prefers pictures. Once his pictures are complete and in the order that makes sense to him, he calls me over to write his words. It's always a big deal to include on the cover: by Noah Bielecki, the author (who has a girlfriend).

Tonight the boys teamed up to brainstorm some pretty terrific stories about Halloween and monsters. Joey abandoned it to begin writing a story right away, while Noah wanted to continue coming up with ideas. This is where he enlisted my help, climbing into my lap with his wrinkled paper and bleeding pen.

"I'll give you CLUES about my ideas," he said. "And you try and guess. They will all be monsters." When he says "monsters," it sounds like, "MAWNsters."

"Okay," I said. "You start."

"Okay," he agreed. "This one has a large head shaped like a rectangle."

"What?!" asked Joey, looking up from his paper. Noah was annoyed. Since Joey had excused himself from the activity, Noah did not want his input.

"A head," Noah said again, glaring at Joey, "shaped like a rectangle."

"Frankenstein?" I guessed.

"YES!" Noah said excitedly. "Now you help me read it." He poised his pen to the paper, which creased slightly under his awkward lefty grip.

"You mean spell it," I said.

"Yes," he said. "That's what I said."

It took ten minutes for us to get "Frankenstein" on the paper.

"Next," Noah said, "is something made from toilet paper."

"A mummy?"

"Very good!" he exclaimed. Together, we wrote, "Mummy."

"What's next?" I asked.

"This one is like toothpaste."

I blanked. "Toothpaste?" I repeated.

He didn't hesitate. "Yes," he insisted. "It's like toothpaste. Buh, buh."

I swallowed a laugh.

"Buh, buh," he repeated. "That's the starting sound. I don't want to say the whole thing. You guess it."

"But I really don't have a guess on this one," I told him, wishing I could keep from smiling because it was clearly offending him. I tried again, "What color toothpaste?"

He made a face. "Pink," he said, shrugging and waving a hand.

"Pink toothpaste?" I wasn't teasing; I really didn't have any idea.

"Pink! Like a blob!" He snapped his hand in the air and slapped it down on the table. He shouted, "And now I said it! I didn't want to say it." He scowled at me over his shoulder. "The word is 'blob,' okay? Now...now...just spell it for me, will you?!"

I'm not really sure when I became so stupid, but as far as Noah's concerned, I'm beyond help.