This is Adolescence: 14

This is Adolescence: 14

By Catherine Newman

art-banjo

Fourteen is confessing how he kind of still wants to have a job like in Richard Scarry’s Busytown.

Fourteen stands in the bathroom doorway with a smear of foam above his lip and a razor in his hand, chatting into your bedroom. You remind yourself to pay attention. In four years he will be gone.

You put a finger in your book to keep your spot while your manchild fills the doorway with his tall, talking self. You remind yourself to listen to the actual content, not just to the fact of his little lemon-drop voice getting buried in gravel. Fourteen is confessing how he kind of still wants to have a job like in Richard Scarry’s Busytown. He wants to work in a paper factory or a fabric mill or inside the enormous cross-sected engine room of a ship. “I mean,” he says, “Believe me. I know those are all totally crushing jobs in real life. But still.”

Fourteen watches The Possession, The Shining, The Birds with buoyant delight, but looks on with frank, exaggerated horror when you pluck your chin hairs in the bathroom mirror. You can tell from his expression that every revolting thing in the world has been concentrated in the lower part of your face. When you catch his disgusted eye in the mirror, he reshapes his mouth into an apologetic smile. You stick up your middle finger and he laughs, leaves the room noisily beat-boxing.

Fourteen picks up a banjo to accompany his sister on guitar. He bends over her math homework, his long hair hanging into the long-division problem he is patiently explaining. He says to her, in the cat’s cranky voice, “Great. Now I have to wash all over again because you pet me.” When she snatches her hand back from the cat’s damp fur, you remind her that it wasn’t really the cat complaining, and Fourteen says, in the cat’s cranky voice, “Yes, it was.”

Fourteen is full of sudden domestic judgments. “Does the kitchen sponge have to be so gross?” (Yes.) “The recycling smells.” (Indeed.) “Didn’t our floors used to be nice and shiny?” (They did!) Coming in from his monthly lawn mowing, Fourteen manages to communicate more overheatedness than a supernova. He flops on the couch, conspicuously fanning himself, and asks, breathless and, it would appear, having a small stroke, if you wouldn’t mind getting him a glass of ice water. You bring him the water, then can’t help yourself. “Fourteen,” you say, “it’s, like, ten square feet of mowing. I think you’ll be okay.” “You’re welcome,” Fourteen says. You’d love to stay and argue, but you have to rush out and buy him pants, pants, and more pants. The getting of pants is your new full-time job. If you listen hard in the night, you can hear his legs growing.

Speaking of the night: Fourteen no longer looks like a baby while he sleeps. For years, even as his limbs stretched and dangled, his dreaming face regressed to the contours of infancy: downy cheeks, pearl of nose, the pink, pouched lips of a nursling. But now that it’s been kiln-fired, the face has taken this opportunity to chisel out its jutting new edges: brow and jaw, nose and chin. Like a Neanderthal crossed with a peach.

Fourteen sits on a stool with a wooden spoon in one hand and a fork in the other, eating buttered noodles right from the pot. Fourteen and three friends eat two pounds of bacon in four minutes. Fourteen is a bottomless pit, and you secretly love this, although you don’t know why. Probably because feeding him is your idiom for loving. As is grabbing his face in your two hands and kissing his reluctant cheeks, breathing in his fleeting scalp scent.

Fourteen is lazy in the best possible way. One day you and he lure the cat into bed with treats, then spend the glorious start of the weekend in leisurely conversation about Friskies Party Mix. “If they were human treats, which flavor would you pick?” He shows you the package and you pick Meow Luau. He picks Mixed Grill, then asks which you would pick if they were still cat treats but you had to eat them. You both pick Cheezy Craze.

The cat snores softly, draped over your four shins. An hour passes. “This,” Fourteen sighs happily, “is a classic Friday afternoon.”

Fourteen is also lazy in the worst possible way. You have been arguing for fourteen years about his teeth and whether they really need so much brushing. “Fine,” you say evenly, one night. “Don’t brush them. They’re your teeth.”

“Oh god!” Fourteen says, his indignant voice like a deep-dug hole. “Mama! That’s brutal! You still have to make me.”

Fourteen scrambles into his enormous boots to take a walk when you invite him. The oak leaves on the ground are thick as leather, and they fill you with joy and sadness. In four years he’ll be gone. These are the same oak leaves that Fourteen crunched through when he was a chubby, staggering toddler, proud in his brown lace-up shoes and knee-deep in autumn. “I feel like we’re just walking through the leaves, and the calendar pages are flying off, and we’re already walking through the leaves again,” you say, and Fourteen says, “I know, right? Even I’m starting to feel like that.” He bolts away to look at something, then smiles at you from a patch of sunlight. And it’s not so different from when he was two: all you can do is be there, open-armed and always, in case he turns. In case he runs back.

Author’s Note: I wanted to write a piece about teenagers and evolution: how nature adapted for acne as a kind of lifesaving flare-like reminder: “Note this pulsing red beacon of my hormonal state! I have a neurochemical situation here, people!” And how cave teenagers with clear skin were killed off by their irritated parents who’d forgotten that they were just going through a little adolescent something, and didn’t mean to be such a pill about taking out the mastodon bones or whatever. But I wrote this instead.

Catherine Newman is the author of Waiting for Birdy and the forthcoming Field Guide to Catastrophic Happiness, and of the blog Ben & Birdy. She is also the etiquette columnist at Real Simple. She lives with her family in Amherst, Mass.

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Book Review: Catastrophic Happiness

Book Review: Catastrophic Happiness

catastrophichappinessBy Lindsey Mead

Catastrophic Happiness by Catherine Newman is a series of essays, which masterfully combine story and reflection. In the prologue, titled IT GETS BETTER, Newman captures the particular joys and indignities of raising small children – riding in the back of the car with them, distributing string cheese, the way a dental appointment feels like a spa vacation because nobody needs you, the droopy sorrow of a weaned bosom, a toddler inhaling sand at the beach – with her trademark perfection. I laughed out loud several times. And then, in the prologue’s last scene, Newman describes a mother sitting in bed between her sleeping children, “boo-hoo[ing] noiselessly into the kids’ hair because life is so beautiful and you don’t want it to change.” Haven’t we all done that? I know that I have. Newman goes on to introduce the years that come after that sleeping-toddler scene, the messy years of the book’s subtitle, by telling us that “…you will feel exactly the way you feel now. Only better.”

The essays that follow trace this getting-better with stories of Newman’s children, Ben and Birdy. My own children are similar in age to Ben and Birdy, though two years stair-step younger (my older child and Birdy are the same age). I related intensely to this book. Each of the seven chapters in Catastrophic Happiness contains power, sentiment, and visceral emotion.

Newman’s observations run the gamut from deep and profound to hilarious and true. For example, within pages in the first section, she states that “happiness is so precarious,” and that “I don’t always understand the children or what their problem is.” Isn’t this one of the defining features of parenting, the way things can swing from dense feeling to trite confusion in a matter of minutes? The hilariously confounding and overwhelmingly holy coexist, at least for me, in most hours.

Over and over again, the lines of Catastrophic Happiness made me gasp and sigh, underline and laugh, text a friend and say “OMG, read this,” and even email Newman herself and ask: “Are we the same person?” For example:

I am so glad and grateful, I am. But sometimes the orchestra plays something in swelling chords of luck and joy, and all I can hear is that one violin sawing out a thin melody of grief.

Newman’s pieces, just like life itself, touch on, and interweave, the sacred and the mundane. The seven chapters are broken into smaller pieces, each of which revolves around a specific memory of a point in time. These are presented in loose chronological order and all have marvelous “How to” names, like “How to Have Complicated Feelings,” “How to Share a Beating Heart” and “How to Hang On By a Thread.”

My favorite section is “How to See the Light Behind the Trees,” which begins in a damp, unpleasant campground bathroom with Birdy, “her pants pool[ing] around her ankles on the wet cement floor.” What parent doesn’t read that and find themselves immediately thrust back into a situation where they wait for their progeny, if not a cement campground outhouse then in a filthy rest stop toilet stall? This is one of parenting’s universal, largely unpleasant scenarios. Newman and her family visit the same campground every year, which makes it the perfect place to reflect on how quickly time is moving. Her memories remind me of our own annual summer vacation, and of the way that an annual visit to the same place provides a unique lens on both time’s passage and the way that the past is animate in the present. There’s heartache to this experience for me, and Newman captures this brilliantly:

I used to picture time as a rope you followed along, hand over hand, into the distance, but it’s nothing like that. It moves outward but holds everything that’s come before. Cut me open and I’m a tree trunk, rings of nostalgia radiating inward. All the years are nested inside me like I’m my own person one-woman matryoshka doll. I guess that’s true for everybody but then I drive myself crazy with my nostalgia and happiness. I am bittersweet personified.

Yes. Me too. Oh, me too.

In some of Catastrophic Happiness’ later sections my identification with Newman’s writing was even more powerful. When she writes how “privacy and independence come on suddenly, like a sleeper wave of separation, and children experience this with simultaneous relief and dread,” I felt like someone was reading my mind. Yes. With children at 11 and 13, I’m riding that wave right now, alternately grateful to be able to see the horizon for the first time in many years and utterly swamped by seawater.

Newman has a true gift for making the reader feel intimately connected to her family. She draws indelible images that are deeply personal to her family and hugely universal at the same time: Birdy, with unraveling braids, in a doctor’s waiting room; Ben cheerfully helping his mother with a flooded basement, the face of a beloved, well-worn beanbag toy that Birdy sleeps with every night.

In Catastrophic Happiness Newman has trapped lightning in a jar, allowing us all to admire its dazzle. In her book’s short, lovely pages she captures life as a mother, life as a human being, life in general, in all of its gorgeous, complicated grandeur. It’s hard for me to choose a favorite passage, but I’ll try.

Life isn’t about avoiding trouble, is it? It’s about being present, even through the hard stuff, so you don’t miss the very thing you’re trying so hard not to lose.

In Catastrophic Happiness, Catherine Newman both powerfully reminds me of what it is I’m trying so hard not to lose, and helps me stay present to it. In my opinion, there is no surer mark of a great book, or no higher compliment.

Lindsey Mead is a mother, writer, and financial services professional who lives near Boston with her daughter, son, and husband. Her work has appeared in a variety of print and online sources, several anthologies, and she blogs regularly at A Design So Vast.

 

20 Favorite Quotes From Brain, Child Writers

20 Favorite Quotes From Brain, Child Writers

 

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Never Wish Happiness for Your Children

By Adrienne Jones

“The trouble with that kind of thinking is, a child is a person, not a soufflé, and ultimately we come to the place where we can’t control everything. Or anything. Our children are themselves.”

 

 

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Brave Enough

By Jennifer Palmer

She was mine, this sweet baby girl, but she belonged to others, too.

 

 


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Backstepping
By Robin Schoenthaler

Then along came adolescence, and my side-by-side parenting began to wane. I noticed it first at the mall, trailing behind the kids like a geisha. And every day it happens more: I find myself hanging back or stepping backwards, turning to move behind them, letting them go forward, out in front. I’m becoming a parent who pivots, scrambling to get out of the way.

 

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The Richest Person in the World

By Adrienne Jones

Well, maybe he’s the second richest person in the world and I’m the richest, because I get to be his mom.

 

 


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Open and Closed

By Catherine Newman

When they’re little, and you’re scraping them off of your leg at a party so you can refill your wine glass and metabolically transform four or five pounds of cheese into the milk that’s soaking through the front of your dress, you can’t wait for the kids to become separate from you. Thanks to your mind, as open as a flower-dotted meadow, you know that you will rise to any occasion of individuality.

 

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Because I Will Always Do It Again

By Jon Sponaas

“Though I can’t, in a general way, believe much of anything, I especially couldn’t believe that you were IN your mom’s tummy, floating around in that complicated liquid…”

 

 

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The Days Are Long/The Years Are Short

By Lauren Apfel and Lisa Heffernan

With my nest soon completely empty, I face the day that has loomed before me from the moment I became a mother. I am facing three distinct losses, that of their childhood selves, of my identity as their mother and, most painfully, of the daily intimacy that was our life together.

 

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Baby Weight

By Cheryl Strayed

There aren’t words to adequately describe the love I felt for my son. It was, by far, the most shocking thing that has ever happened to me. To love this way. To become, in an instant, a baby person.

 


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This is Adolescence: 16

By Marcelle Soviero

Sixteen is full of paper thin promise, delicate due to the decisions I can’t make for her anymore, decisions that will determine what happens next.

 

 

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How to Smoke Salmon

By Ann Hood

The sadness that comes from your first child leaving home is, of course, not the saddest thing of all. But the ache, the sense that something is missing, the way you keep looking up, expecting him to burst through the door in his size 13 shoes, it is real.

 

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On Shame and Parenting

By Adrienne Jones

I did for them everything I believed a good mother would do for her children and clenched my teeth and prayed it was enough, or right, or that at the very least they would be OK in spite of the depth of my brokenness.

 

 

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I’m Not Sorry for Yelling

By Jennifer Berney

Now that I’m a parent, I want my kids to know anger as a normal part of daily life.

 

 

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Family Motto: More Love is More Love

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

While it’s really hard to explain adoption to a five-year-old—and at times, I fear what the conversations will be with a ten- or fifteen-year-old—the notion that guides me is this: more love is more love.

 

 

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She loves Me She Loves Me Not

By Karen Dempsey

Liddy would cup my cheeks and pull my face to hers as if she were breathing me in. “Oh, my mommy,” she’d whisper. “I love that you be my mommy.”

 

 

 

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Loving Kip

By Jamie Johnson

It’s because Kip isn’t a face, or a name, or a gender. Kip is a person. And it’s Kip, not the “he” or “she” that I love to death. His soul is still the same.

 

 

love-you-the-same1 I Love you The Same But Different
By Rachel Pieh Jones

I love all my children the same. But I don’t love all my children the same. I love them all the same amount. Endlessly, to the moon and back, from Djibouti to Minnesota and back, forever and no matter what. But I don’t love them all in the same way. I don’t know why this realization surprised me. I mean, of course I don’t love them all in the same way. They are unique individuals and I have a unique, individual relationship with each one.

 

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Bury My Son Before I Die

By Joanne De Simone

It goes against everything we believe about motherhood, but I’d rather bury my child than leave him behind.

 

 

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Armageddon Mama
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By Tracy Mayor

Beyond that, in the spirit of planning for the worst while hoping for the best, I guess the most moral thing I can do right now as a parent is to raise my kids to be in some way part of a solution. Not just recyclers or composters or occasional car-campers, but innovators, problem-solvers, team players, good citizens of the world. Non-assholes.

 

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MAMA: Mothers Against More Activities

By Francie Arenson Dickman

I’m not sure when doing nothing after school fell out of favor. As a kid, I was a pro at nothing. We all were.

 

 

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Till Death Did They Part
By Molly Krause

When my dad came back after two decades of divorce, I wondered if my mom had somehow been waiting for him.

 

 

Lumpy

Lumpy

Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 2.11.21 PMOne minute we’re skipping through the sunshine, and the next we’re lodged in the belly of the diagnostic beast. It’s the x-rays that happen first—only we’re not actually thinking first because we don’t understand yet what’s ahead of us. We’re in the radiology department that’s just down the hall from our pediatrician’s office, which is the comforting medical equivalent of the girl next door: How bad can it be if they don’t even make you leave the neighborhood?

Still, I sit in the waiting room beneath the warm weight of Birdy, breathing in the summer smell of seven-year-old scalp between her braids, and I wonder if our lives are about to change. Is there going to be a before this moment and an after? The radiology order is sweaty in my fingers. “? mass in chest wall” it says, in busy-doctor scrawl. Four words and one dislocated punctuation mark: That’s what I have to go on, and so I go on it. The aggressively preemptive question mark followed by the word mass, which I hate: its evocation of neoplastic malignancy on the one hand, and of the Pope chanting through an incense-scented funeral on the other. Or that mystifying physics property that’s like weight, only different: The mass of the mass is equal to something squared divided by the extent to which we can spare Birdy, which is not at all. Q.E.D. The alliterative “malignant mass” I’ve heard a million times, but “benign mass” is suddenly not ringing any bells. Also, chest wall. “Fortress Around Your Heart,” that Sting song, plays in my head like a soundtrack: Is the fortress around your heart a good or a bad thing? I can’t remember. But your heart is kind of counting on your chest wall to protect it, I’m guessing; it’s not really supposed to have a mass in it. I’d be happier with “mass in kneecap” or “mass in big toe.” “The further away it is from your brain, the better,” my son, Ben, once consoled his grandmother, who was having a squamous-cell something removed from her shin. Indeed. But also the further away it is from your heart. My heart.

So far, approximately four minutes have elapsed, and I’m already deranged. It will be another two and a half months before they figure out what’s going on.

“Abigail Newman.” The radiology technician is holding the door open, and the use of Birdy’s given name, which nobody ever uses, makes me feel like she’s in trouble. Abigail Newman, you get in here this second! Did you leave this mass in your chest wall? I help Birdy off with her clothes while the technician clucks over the order. “You just don’t like to see stuff that’s unilateral like this,” she muses grimly, shaking her head. No? I concentrate on not bursting into tears by teasing Birdy about her outfit: a floor-length, floral-sprigged johnny with a little lead apron tied around her waist. “All you need is a bonnet and you’d look just like Ma Ingalls!” I say, and Birdy laughs, twirls, and curtsies, before sitting dead still for ten minutes so the buzzing machine can spy on her bones. Have we all heard the same urban legends? About spider eggs in Bubble Yum and how the lead apron is, radioactively speaking, like trying to stop a bullet with a piece of paper? I hate having heard that.

“Wow,” I say, looking over the tech’s shoulder as a series of images appears on her computer screen. “Look at all your strong ribs! I really see why they call it a ribcage! It really does look like a cage! Doesn’t it look like a cage? How fascinating!”

The optimistic patter of the worried parent! It is very exclamatory! And it continues further down the hall, where we’ve now been sent for an ultrasound after the x-ray has illuminated exactly nothing.

“I thought it was going to be bone,” the tech said, “but it’s not—which means it’s got to be soft tissue.” She tried to grimace at me sympathetically, but I looked away to better thwart her pessimistic contamination. Soft tissue. Oh, Birdy of the softest tissue! Soft tissue is the Kleenex nest she made for her tiniest bear in an old walnut-shaped nut bowl. Soft tissue is the Don’t squeeze the Charmin! meatiness of her luscious thighs.

“Wow!” I say instead. “We get to see all your insides working! That’s a lucky thing!” You see their innards before they’re born—that strange prenatal introduction to your baby via her black-and-white internal organs—and then, if you’re lucky, never again. “So, so lucky!” I say again.

And we are—we are lucky. The ultra-sound tech shows us her beating heart, the galloping wild horse of her life. But my Pollyanna muscle is strained and spent by the labor of good cheer. You know the tech can’t and won’t answer your questions, but still you can’t help yourself. “What do you think?” I say, trying to trick her with my chummy casualness. “See anything?”

“We’ll let the radiologist take a look,” she answers, all pleasant poker face.

We are sent back up the hall to wait, and our pediatrician finally calls us in and shrugs over the radiology reports. “They didn’t see anything,” she says—and I imagine for a moment that our collective hallucination has been swatted away by the empirical hand of science, like the finale of a Scooby-Doo mystery: Turns out those pirates had projected a hologram of a mass onto this chest wall here, which had us all fooled! “Which is good,” she continues, “but weird, because it’s not like there’s not something here.” Right.

The doctor and I take turns feeling Birdy up, and she giggles. I love this doctor. I love that two hours ago, when she was first checking out the bump, she’d been openly baffled. I love that she called in a couple of colleagues, and the tiny exam room turned into a kind of jovial chest-wall-mass party, everybody pressing on Birdy’s ribcage and expressing more curiosity than fear. I am already nostalgic for that time. “How long has she had it?” they wanted to know, and suddenly I wasn’t sure. Had it been in my peripheral awareness for a while? Maybe. But then I’d been smearing Birdy with sunscreen, and there it was for sure, the lumpy, insistent fact of it, like something pushed under her skin: a donut hole; a bottle cap; a clot of abnormally dividing cells. SPF fucking 45! My creamy ho-hum cancer precaution seemed, suddenly, malevolently, like a red herring.

“I don’t know,” I said.

Now, the doctor says the first thing that scares Birdy: “I think I’m going to send you guys to the surgeon.”

“Surgery?” Birdy’s alarm-wide eyes fill with tears, and the doctor is quick to reassure her.

“Just because they know more about this stuff,” she says. “Not because they’re going to operate on you.”

One cherry-dip cone later, good cheer has returned to Birdyland. “Dumb lump,” she says, and pats her chest affectionately with a sticky, pink hand.

Our appointment is scheduled for three weeks from now. In the endless interim, we see my brother and his wife, brilliant physicians both, who examine Birdy at my request. They are heartbreakingly gentle with her, and she shows off a little under the bright light of their attention. “I call him Lumpy,” she says, all casual-like, puffing out her little bare chest. “Because he’s so lumpy!” They are both dismissive—they agree that it’s likely some kind of a benignly anomalous growth spurt—and afterwards my relief coincides with a cooling and lightening of the summer’s hot, heavy skies.

We also see my parents. “Whatever you do, don’t mention it to them,” I badger Michael in the car. “We’ll tell them about it later, after it all turns out to be fine.” We are in their apartment maybe fifteen seconds before I blurt out, “Birdy has a lump in her chest. They don’t know what it is. I’m sure it’s fine.

We’re seeing a specialist. I don’t want you to worry.” I can’t help it. Their concern is the psychic equivalent of someone holding my hand during the scary parts of The Wizard of Oz. I feel like an asshole to worry them, but I’m glad for their company.

The surgeon, when we finally see him, has a kind of blustery masculine confidence that doubtless makes him a terrible person to date, but he is an excellent one to talk to about a mass in your daughter’s chest wall. We leave his office with an order for an MRI and a holistic sense of Birdy’s fineness: He is not overly concerned, he has told us, and I believe him. Only here’s what happens: Waiting, which we must do more of now, is the diagnostic equivalent of solitary confinement, corrosive of both spirit and sanity. The relief starts out vast and gleaming, like a serene expanse of turquoise sea. But then all the what-ifs—the troubling turns of phrase and outside chances—rise to the surface, until the likelihood of Birdy’s okayness is fully circled by sharks. The picture of health jigsaws apart into pieces—fragments that, held up one at a time, are impossible to interpret. “‘It’s probably cartilage,'” I quote the surgeon back to Michael, in the middle of the night. “‘But we just want to make sure there’s nothing inside the cartilage that’s making it grow like that.'”

Michael, who’s floating calmly at the surface of what’s most likely, which is that Birdy’s fine, says, “They just need to make sure.”

Right. “I’ll be shocked,” the surgeon has said, “if there turns out to be a malignancy.” This seemed good enough at the time—great, even!—but now I hate that he said the word aloud, even for the purpose of dismissing it. And the more time passes, the more I want to ask him approximately how often he’s shocked. For all we know, a dozen things a day shock him: “I’m shocked that nobody filled the ice trays!” “I’m shocked that we’re out of Special K!” “There turned out to be a malignancy? Well, color me shocked!”

There is also the fact that our MRI is not even scheduled yet. “You’ll get a letter in the mail with the date and time of your scan,” the surgeon’s receptionist had explained.

“Wait. What?” I had literally not understood. “Do you want to give me the number and I’ll just call and make an appointment?”

“It doesn’t work that way.” Her pinched eyebrows suggested my recalcitrance. You’ll get a letter in the mail.” I was frayed and fraying. These were the same people in charge of the magnetic resonance imaging of my child—but the telephone eluded them?

“Maybe they could send it by carrier pigeon,” I said to Michael in the middle of the night. “Or singing telegram.” When I called after a week, it turned out that the appointment-scheduler was on vacation; after two weeks, the letter-mailer was. I am unraveling so profoundly that I’m surprised not to see limbs fallen off and strewn around the house. “Maybe I’ll just go ahead and go to medical school and specialize in radiology,” I say to Michael, in the middle of the night. “To save time.” I finally wrangle the appointment out of them. We have two more weeks to wait.

“I’m not going to Google it,” I say to Michael in the middle of the night. “Don’t you Google it, either.” I get up and Google it. And here is my conclusion: People don’t tend to log onto the Internet to tell nice, boring stories about everything turning out just fine. My new get-rich scheme is going to be a web-site called www.itwasnothingafterall.com detailing people’s various diagnostic false alarms. “They thought it was a tumor, but it turned out to be just a piece of old Fiddle Faddle!”

Meanwhile, I can’t keep my hands off Birdy’s chest: I’m like a bad date, wrapping my arms around her and groping her on the sly. I daydream about Birdy’s illness and death, and experience an anticipation of grief that’s almost ecstatic in its clarity. I tell you this confessionally. In this twilight zone of waiting, I cannot stop imagining my own bereftness. So on top of everything else, there is my histrionic lameness to deal with.

Brave Birdy Bluebird is what they call my daughter at her karate class, and I think about this during the MRI. Have you had one? I haven’t, and so I have ill-prepared Birdy for it: the noisy, white and whirring tunnel that sucks her in and keeps her while she holds her breath for twenty-five courageous seconds at a time, fifteen times in forty-five minutes. Have you held your breath for twenty-five seconds? I haven’t, and I am doing it now, because I cannot stop trying to have this expe- rience for Birdy, and it is hard. This is your maternal empathy on crack. I am dizzy and smiling nonstop, like a crazy person. Birdy’s chin quivers at one point, and she says, near tears, “I think I might have breathed during that last one.” We are alone in the room, Birdy in the tunnel in a paper dress, me squat- ting to hold her hand, and the Muzak version of the Annie soundtrack stops long enough for a disembodied voice to buzz in: “That’s okay. We’ll try that one again.” Upon strict magnetic orders, I have removed my belt and earrings, but I keep picturing the metal fillings flying out of my molars into the tunnel, lodging in Birdy’s skull.

“At least nothing actually hurts!” I offer, lamely, moments before the tech comes back in with a dye-pumping, huge-needled IV.

“Whatever you do, don’t move while I inject you, or we’ll have to do all the pictures over again. Okay, sweetheart?” Across the way, they are wheeling in a tiny baby, pushing her into a different tunnel. It is not just us, I know.

On our way out, they give Birdy a coupon for a free ice-cream cone from the Friendly’s downstairs. “This is so lucky!” she says, thrilled, while they swirl her soft-serve, and I am so in love with her that I have to squeeze her and kiss the top of her head, even though it’s not enough. What I really want to do is shrink her down and stuff her into my mouth. I want to marry her. I want to buy her a present—I can see the gift shop across the hall—but then I wonder suddenly if we’re going to be coming here a lot, and if we’d better keep a trick or two up our sleeves just in case. I imagine wheeling Birdy down from the Pediatric Unit upstairs, watching her fondle the Beanies and choose one; I imagine her cheerful disbelief: “This is so lucky!” In the Friendly’s line behind us, a woman bursts into tears, and a man puts his arms around her. It is not just us. The MRI shows—wait for it—nothing. More precisely, either more or less than nothing. The radiologist, who has never once laid eyes on the flesh-and-blood fact of my daughter, actually thinks there may be more swelling on the other side of her chest—a suggestion that maddeningly defies empirical evidence. We are stuck in a world of robots making their robot pronouncements. Our surgeon, who is away on vacation, communicates to his reception staff that he wants us to do an ultrasound. Another ultrasound? Yes. We’ll get a letter in the mail with the date and time of our scan. It’s like one of those awful Escher drawings, and this one is called “The Moebius Strip of Medical Imaging.” We are driving around and around the diagnostic parking garage, looking for the exit sign, and we can never seem to leave the level we parked on.

Two weeks later, the ultrasound tech leaves the room for a second, and Michael says, “I guess they gave her the day off from high school.”

Her ponytail bounces, her gum cracks, and she speaks so, so kindly to Birdy. “Are you doing okay, sweetie?”

“I am! I’m great!” I watch the screen and strain to interpret it. I see the gently sloping landscape of Birdy’s chest; I see the tech compare the two sides, type in the letters “R” and “L.” I am mustering every analytic skill I have, as if what’s in front of me is a poem full of complex symbolic imagery: What does it mean? I don’t know. I don’t see anything that looks like a tumor, but I’ve never seen an ultrasound of a tumor, so how would I know? I studied semiotics in grad school, and here it is again: Signs can be radically unmoored from their referents; nothing could be something, something could be nothing; a spiking fever could mean a healthy immune system or leukemia; an absence of pain could mean longevity or imminent death. Is luck finite—like a bottle of water guzzled all at once? I don’t know.

Another two weeks later, we watch Birdy from the kitchen window—she’s bent over a patch of chives in my mother’s herb garden while my father’s riding mower, running and riderless, careens down a hill towards her. We have just met with our surgeon who reviewed the radiology reports for us and concluded that it was, as he’d suspected, a benign overgrowth of cartilage. “I am very glad there’s no tumor,” he said to us, and then, to the medical resident who was shadowing him, “I was very worried there was a tumor.” What happened to I would be shocked? I felt faint from the combination of relief and retroactive fear. I hadn’t even worried enough, it turned out! I had not fully understood the danger. “Cartilaginous exostosis,” is the official diagnosis: i.e., a lump. It might get bigger when she gets bigger; it might require a brace or surgical intervention; blah blah. It is not life threatening, and so I am filled with fondness for it. Lumpy! Only now I am running outside, screaming, and the tractor has already veered away and stalled in a patch of vinca under the maple tree. Birdy is standing in the sunlight, whole and unharmed. My father had stepped away for just a minute, it turns out. This is not the other shoe dropping. It is not tragic irony or doom or punishment for our interpretive failures. It is life, with loss woven into its very fabric. That’s just what there is.

Author’s Note: Oddly, I’m writing this note on the day of Birdy’s eight-year pediatric appointment—what I still like to call her “well-baby check-up”—and our doctor and I were able to exchange a few subtle, relieved signals over Birdy’s head about the fact of Lumpy’s having turned into what we call in Yiddish a nisht geferlach—no big deal. As my father likes to say, “There are very few true geferlachs in life.” Amen.

Brain, Child (Summer 2011)

 

Mother May I?

Mother May I?

mothermayiHere at the dinner table, Birdy is in an ecstasy of cornbread. It has dissolved inside her mouth into a curious paste, and she works it around and around, finally extruding a pale tube of it from between her lips like she’s some kind of coin-op polenta machine.

“Oh Birdy honey,” I say. “I don’t want you to do that.”

“Why not, Mama?” This is Ben now; Birdy can’t speak for slurping the mush back into her mouth. “Is it not safe—like she could choke on it? Or not kind?”

“Safe and Kind” is the rule at school, and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a fine mantra for becoming—and remaining—a human being (it would, for example, make for excellent foreign policy).

“Well,” I say. “I guess it’s that it’s not kind, in a way. I mean, it’s not unkind exactly—Birdy’s not trying to be mean. But it’s gross, which means that it disturbs the other people at the table.”

Ben considers this while he chews a mouthful of chili, as cautiously tight-lipped now as someone’s old granny. He swallows, blots his lips with a napkin, then asks, “But why is it even gross?”

Sometimes I tire of answering their questions, it’s true, but I love the way the kids keep us honest with their curiosity. Especially about manners, which can seem so arbitrary but, at their best, aren’t. “Why?” is just such a good question. Why do you have to say ‘please’? Because it makes people feel good about helping you. Why do you have to say ‘thank you’? Because it shows people that you noticed them doing something for you. Why do you have to use the forks in that particular order? You don’t—we don’t really care about that kind of thing.

Ben’s like a sociologist, sent into the field to study politeness. “Thank you, Mama,” I cue into the silence after pouring him a glass of milk, and he repeats it absently, “Thank you, Mama.”

But then he asks, “But Mama? I don’t even really like milk all that much. I drink it because you guys say I should. Do I still have to say thank you even if you’re giving me something I don’t even want?”

“That’s such a good question,” I say, and mean it. “But yes, honey. You do. Society works best when people are as nice to each other as they can be.”

“I don’t know,” he ponders aloud.

And he returns to pondering when we’re getting ready for bed and I say to a rascally-mood Birdy, “Please don’t bite me when I’m trying to take your socks off.”

“You know, Mama,” Ben laughs, “I think if what you’re saying is don’t bite me you shouldn’t really have to say please.”

“Good point,” I say.

We are strict about manners: The kids have been hissed at in the car more than once, have returned, scolded and solemn-faced, to people’s doorsteps to say, “Thank you for having me.” When the veggies get passed around the table, I use the trick my friend Alix taught me: “Brussels sprouts—Yes please or No thank you?” (Gag me is not one of the choices, as I am quick to remind their father)—and it works like a charm.

But overall, the children behave graciously, and their good manners are their own reward. “What polite children!” people gush at them in the hardware store, at restaurants, when they stop by my office—and the kids beam with pride. “Thank you!’ they say, like caricatures of polite children. And I don’t mention the power struggles when they were toddlers—the stand-offs over markers and cheese, when the little tyrants simply could not bring themselves to dilute their delight, urgency, or rage with the word please.

And Birdy can still, at three, turn into the pettiest of despots: “I need a wet tissue!” she cries, from her car seat, where her fingers are practically stuck together with the sap from an apricot fruit leather. I wait to see if she’ll catch herself.

“Mom, I said I need a wet tissue!

“I hear you,” I say. “It sounds like you really need a wet tissue!”

“I do!”

Silence.

“Mom! My hands are sticky!”

“It sounds like you’ve got some sticky hands!”

More silence.

“Mom, would you please get me a wet tissue?”

“I’d be happy to.”

*   *   *

Part of what’s difficult for toddlers, of course, is that politeness is most often required when somebody does something for you—and toddlers want to be helped about as much as they want another serving of steamed kale. No thank you.

This morning we were watching Birdy wrestle with the large Tupperware container that houses her Playmobil figurines.

“Unh,” she groaned. “Ugh. Oof.”

“Here,” Ben said kindly. “Let me help you.”

But Birdy shrieked, “No, Ben! Don’t.” And then—just as he was beginning to lecture her (“Birdy, even if you don’t want my help, you’ve got to. . . “) she corrected herself. “I mean No thank you, maybe later.” She darted away to the kitchen and returned with a spoon, with which she set to crowbarring the lid, and Ben turned to me with the raised-eyebrow gesture that means, in our family: Good luck, Birdy! But when the lid finally popped off and Birdy hopped up and down triumphantly (“Yay!” she cried, and “Good for me!”) Ben nodded approvingly.

“That’s great, Birdy,” he said, and she said, “Thanks, Benny.” Rooting for each may not be highlighted in the Miss Manners book, but it should be.

*   *   *

Then again, we practice some unorthodox preachings about politeness. I feel, for example, that when you plunk a steaming, buttered ear of it on your child’s plate and he cries, “Ooooh—yum! Corn on the cob!” this is just as good as, if not better than, a plain old “Thank you.” I also think that the pleasure of eating cold green salad with your fingers cannot be overestimated, and at home this is a perfectly acceptable dinnertime behavior. As is resting a comfortable bare knee against the edge of the table, the better to brace yourself while you tug enthusiastically at a sparerib with teeth and hands. These are what we call the “home alone” rules. They differ from “guests over” rules—which differ in turn from “Grandparents over” rules. Which are pretty much identical to “eating at a restaurant” rules, if you please, which means no sticking of your buttery fingers into anybody’s water glass to snatch away and crunch their ice cubes, no not even your own, and no, not even with your salad fork.

I like explaining manners when kindness is the operative goal; I am inclined to think they’re silly when it’s not. And then every now and then there’s a grey area—like the cornbread. “Why is it even gross?” Here at the dinner table, I’m thinking aloud now, saying Ben’s question back to him. “It’s a good question, honey.”

“I mean,” he says, “it’s not gross on your plate. And then it’s just chewed up, which is the same, but chewed.”

“That’s true,” I say, but already a light bulb is illuminating the space above Ben’s head. “I know!” he says. “It’s closer to being poop than when it’s on your plate! And the closer it is to being poop, the less polite it is.”

This is probably a fairly articulate rendering of another of society’s basic tenets. Safe and Kind—and as far from becoming poop as possible.

“Good thinking,” I say.

And Ben smiles at me and says, “Thank you.”

Author’s Note: Ben and Birdy are nine and six now, and they remain polite, vulgar, and curious about the “why” and “how” of manners. “Excuse me, I farted on your pillow,” they say. They say, “Please pull my finger!” and “Would you be so kind as to grab me another roll of toilet paper so I can finish wiping my crack?” I never would have guessed that politeness and scatology could blend together so seamlessly, but I guess you just have to roll with it, right? Turns out I’d rather have a kid who says an enthusiastic “Thanks, Mama!” even if it’s about passing him the prank plastic cat turd, than a kid who takes a fragrant bouquet of flowers sullenly out of my offering hands.

Brain, Child (Summer 2009)

Open and Closed

Open and Closed

 A selected essay from our new Fall Issue

Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 6.37.34 PMBy Catherine Newman

The kids have come into my bed, warm and fragrant from sleep, and we’re lingering under the covers, even though it’s a school morning. Early pink sunlight filters through the tiny octagonal window and sets our blue walls aglow. “I love our house,” I sigh, and Birdy, 11, sighs from somewhere near my armpit, says, “Me too. So much.” Ben, 14, is quiet—maybe he’s asleep again. “I love our doorknobs,” I say.

I can see three of them from here, and no two are the same: one is beautiful old cut glass, one is a dinged-up bronze, and the other looks the newest—a kind of fake vintage porcelain set into a brass plate. All of them predate us, like a knobby collage of other people’s taste.

It’s an old cape house—not ancient, but our bedroom ceilings are low and slanted, and there are traces of the decades of previous inhabitants: artifacts of disparate periods and styles that nobody has bothered, or wanted, to smooth over with coherence. The floors are all wood but appear to have been installed in different rooms during different decades, the maple boards here laid down this way even though the scuffed oak ones there are laid the other. There are newish cabinets in the kitchen, but nobody’s done anything about the closets, of which there are three in the entire house, only one with a door, barely as deep as your arm. And then there are the doors themselves: most are thickly painted, with chips revealing colors as layered as a Gobstopper, but the doors to the kids’ tiny rooms are the newest, barely finished pine and so deeply luminous that someone must have thought they were too beautiful to mar with knobs, which they don’t have.

“Ugh. I hate our doorknobs.” Ben is awake after all! Awake and filled with contempt! Who knew? “I think that might be the first time in your entire life that I’ve ever heard you use the word hate,” I say, and Birdy laughs. “I was just thinking the same thing,” she says. Ben is, typically, as pleasant and springy as a deep carpet of moss, and has been for his entire life. When he was three, he woke us once in the night, saying loudly from sleep, “I was still using that!” followed by the quieter, cheerful, “Oh, okay, you go ahead then.” The worst thing I have ever heard him say about another person was in response to a recent question about a middle-school classmate: “Is she nice?” I’d asked, and he hesitated and said, with the barest whiff of tentativeness, “She is.”

“Oh, man,” Birdy whispered to me, laughing. “She must be really awful.”

“You hate the doorknobs,” I say now, because I know about active listening, and Ben says again, “Ugh.” And then, “I hate the way they don’t match. I wish they were all, I don’t know, brushed nickel or something.” This is a kid who watches HGTV whenever there’s cable, who droolingly studies the New York Times Great Homes and Destinations slideshows online and reads the IKEA catalogue cover to cover like it’s a book about a hero’s journey through Swedish light fixtures to a better life. He is moved to exclamatory passion by such modernities as black flooring and vast white sectional sofas and open-concept steel staircases. I have suspected our scrappy Bohemian lifestyle and raggedy Salvation Army aesthetic of grating on him, but this is the first I’ve heard of it. And, I’m embarrassed to admit, I bristle. I think: Brat. I say: “That’s a couple hundred dollars I don’t really want to spend on doorknobs. But you should feel free. Honestly, be my guest. You’ve got some money saved up. I’ll drive you to Home Depot.”

“No, no,” he says, mild again, and cowed. “It’s stupid, I know. It doesn’t matter.” At which point I flush with shame. Because doorknobs don’t matter, not really—but this lovely boy, trying to flex the new muscle of his differentness from us? That matters.

When they’re little, and you’re scraping them off of your leg at a party so you can refill your wine glass and metabolically transform four or five pounds of cheese into the milk that’s soaking through the front of your dress, you can’t wait for the kids to become separate from you. Thanks to your mind, as open as a flower-dotted meadow, you know that you will rise to any occasion of individuality. You merrily indulge their clomping around in their rain boots for sunny months on end; you chuckle over their sudden quirky interest in Care Bears or jazz or chai. And you look to the future, imagining that you will be called upon to support your children’s differentiation in ways that are delightful or noble or both: “I’m gay!” they will say, and you will rush to the streets in your PFLAG t-shirt, plaster your car with “I gaily support my gay children” stickers. “I’m a vegetarian!” they will say, and you will stir-fry tofu happily, blanket it with nutritional yeast; you will adore the Buddhist boyfriend, you will donate to their bluegrass band’s Kickstarter, and you will be pat-yourself-on-the-back perfect with the banjo-playing bacon-eschewing gay lotus-scented lifestyle your child has chosen.

Only that’s not what it’s like, because those things are only samenesses masquerading as difference. It’s the actual differences, however tediously minute, that are truly challenging. What’s hard about a child’s differentiation is—Aha moment!—that it’s different from you.

And what Ben wants to be is rich. He wants to live a white-and-black-and-silver life, climate-controlled and, ideally, featured in various aspirational publications. He is the proud owner of four shares of Jet Blue stock, which he researched extensively before purchase. He prefers hotels to camping; he’d rather eat out than suffer another of my famous bean feasts; he likes nice ties, and ties one on at the slightest provocation. He wants a pool-side robot butler from Hammacher Schlemmer, despite our sore lacking of a pool or robot funds. In short, we have birthed Alex P. Keaton.

Do we press into him, like a kind of socialist steam iron, an understanding that profit tends to be carried to the wealthy on the backs of the working poor? Yes. Yes we do. And Ben wants to donate vast chunks of his future wealth to various worthy causes, writing enormous checks, à la Bill Gates, from the acre of mahogany desk on his own private island. Also, he has promised to take us on a private cruise of the Caribbean, an idea I confess to finding not unappealing, even if my Lily Pullitzer cover-up will have been salvaged from the Goodwill.

Meanwhile, this kid just hates the doorknobs. Or— lightbulb!—wants one of his own? “Do you want a knob on your bedroom door?” I ask now. “It’s honestly never occurred to me.”

“Oh, I’d love that,” he says. “I’m kind of sick of not being able to close my door all the way.” Our teenager. Have you ever heard of privacy? you are wondering. I know. Man, we are the lamest.

After school, we troll the aisles of Home Depot, and Ben carefully deliberates before picking out a brushed nickel doorknob—one that locks, even. “Is that really okay?” he asks (like Oliver from Oliver) and leans against me happily as I pay. I am thinking of long-ago fireworks—a film clip that plays in slow-mo of the children turning, terrified, and running into my open arms, tumbling, laughing, against me, and then running off again. A door is closing. It’s a metaphor and, also, it’s just the door—closing and opening, as doors do.

Author’s Note: Luckily, if Ben ends up seeing this piece, he’ll just skim it for the details about other people’s nice homes, and he won’t even realize it’s about him.

Catherine Newman is the author of the award-winning memoir Waiting for Birdy, and writes regularly for many different magazines, including FamilyFun, where she is a contributing editor, Real Simple, and the nonprofit kids’ cooking magazine, ChopChop. She writes about cooking and parenting on her blog at benandbirdy.blogspot.com.

Open and Closed

Open and Closed

 A selected essay from our new Fall Issue

Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 6.37.34 PMBy Catherine Newman

The kids have come into my bed, warm and fragrant from sleep, and we’re lingering under the covers, even though it’s a school morning. Early pink sunlight filters through the tiny octagonal window and sets our blue walls aglow. “I love our house,” I sigh, and Birdy, 11, sighs from somewhere near my armpit, says, “Me too. So much.” Ben, 14, is quiet—maybe he’s asleep again. “I love our doorknobs,” I say.

I can see three of them from here, and no two are the same: one is beautiful old cut glass, one is a dinged-up bronze, and the other looks the newest—a kind of fake vintage porcelain set into a brass plate. All of them predate us, like a knobby collage of other people’s taste.

It’s an old cape house—not ancient, but our bedroom ceilings are low and slanted, and there are traces of the decades of previous inhabitants: artifacts of disparate periods and styles that nobody has bothered, or wanted, to smooth over with coherence. The floors are all wood but appear to have been installed in different rooms during different decades, the maple boards here laid down this way even though the scuffed oak ones there are laid the other. There are newish cabinets in the kitchen, but nobody’s done anything about the closets, of which there are three in the entire house, only one with a door, barely as deep as your arm. And then there are the doors themselves: most are thickly painted, with chips revealing colors as layered as a Gobstopper, but the doors to the kids’ tiny rooms are the newest, barely finished pine and so deeply luminous that someone must have thought they were too beautiful to mar with knobs, which they don’t have.

“Ugh. I hate our doorknobs.” Ben is awake after all! Awake and filled with contempt! Who knew? “I think that might be the first time in your entire life that I’ve ever heard you use the word hate,” I say, and Birdy laughs. “I was just thinking the same thing,” she says. Ben is, typically, as pleasant and springy as a deep carpet of moss, and has been for his entire life. When he was three, he woke us once in the night, saying loudly from sleep, “I was still using that!” followed by the quieter, cheerful, “Oh, okay, you go ahead then.” The worst thing I have ever heard him say about another person was in response to a recent question about a middle-school classmate: “Is she nice?” I’d asked, and he hesitated and said, with the barest whiff of tentativeness, “She is.”

“Oh, man,” Birdy whispered to me, laughing. “She must be really awful.”

“You hate the doorknobs,” I say now, because I know about active listening, and Ben says again, “Ugh.” And then, “I hate the way they don’t match. I wish they were all, I don’t know, brushed nickel or something.” This is a kid who watches HGTV whenever there’s cable, who droolingly studies the New York Times Great Homes and Destinations slideshows online and reads the IKEA catalogue cover to cover like it’s a book about a hero’s journey through Swedish light fixtures to a better life. He is moved to exclamatory passion by such modernities as black flooring and vast white sectional sofas and open-concept steel staircases. I have suspected our scrappy Bohemian lifestyle and raggedy Salvation Army aesthetic of grating on him, but this is the first I’ve heard of it. And, I’m embarrassed to admit, I bristle. I think: Brat. I say: “That’s a couple hundred dollars I don’t really want to spend on doorknobs. But you should feel free. Honestly, be my guest. You’ve got some money saved up. I’ll drive you to Home Depot.”

“No, no,” he says, mild again, and cowed. “It’s stupid, I know. It doesn’t matter.” At which point I flush with shame. Because doorknobs don’t matter, not really—but this lovely boy, trying to flex the new muscle of his differentness from us? That matters.

When they’re little, and you’re scraping them off of your leg at a party so you can refill your wine glass and metabolically transform four or five pounds of cheese into the milk that’s soaking through the front of your dress, you can’t wait for the kids to become separate from you. Thanks to your mind, as open as a flower-dotted meadow, you know that you will rise to any occasion of individuality. You merrily indulge their clomping around in their rain boots for sunny months on end; you chuckle over their sudden quirky interest in Care Bears or jazz or chai. And you look to the future, imagining that you will be called upon to support your children’s differentiation in ways that are delightful or noble or both: “I’m gay!” they will say, and you will rush to the streets in your PFLAG t-shirt, plaster your car with “I gaily support my gay children” stickers. “I’m a vegetarian!” they will say, and you will stir-fry tofu happily, blanket it with nutritional yeast; you will adore the Buddhist boyfriend, you will donate to their bluegrass band’s Kickstarter, and you will be pat-yourself-on-the-back perfect with the banjo-playing bacon-eschewing gay lotus-scented lifestyle your child has chosen.

Only that’s not what it’s like, because those things are only samenesses masquerading?as difference. It’s the actual differences, however tediously minute, that are truly challenging. What’s hard about a child’s differentiation is—Aha moment!—that it’s different from you.

And what Ben wants to be is rich. He wants to live a white-and-black-and-silver life, climate-controlled and, ideally, featured in various aspirational publications. He is the proud owner of four shares of Jet Blue stock, which he researched extensively before purchase. He prefers hotels to camping; he’d rather eat out than suffer another of my famous bean feasts; he likes nice ties, and ties one on at the slightest provocation. He wants a pool-side robot butler from Hammacher Schlemmer, despite our sore lacking of a pool or robot funds. In short, we have birthed Alex P. Keaton.

Do we press into him, like a kind of socialist steam iron, an understanding that profit tends to be carried to the wealthy on the backs of the working poor? Yes. Yes we do. And Ben wants to donate vast chunks of his future wealth to various worthy causes, writing enormous checks, à la Bill Gates, from the acre of mahogany desk on his own private island. Also, he has promised to take us on a private cruise of the Caribbean, an idea I confess to finding not unappealing, even if my Lily Pullitzer cover-up will have been salvaged from the Goodwill.

Meanwhile, this kid just hates the doorknobs. Or— lightbulb!—wants one of his own? “Do you want a knob on your bedroom door?” I ask now. “It’s honestly never occurred to me.”

“Oh, I’d love that,” he says. “I’m kind of sick of not being able to close my door all the way.” Our teenager. Have you ever heard of privacy? you are wondering. I know. Man, we are the lamest.

After school, we troll the aisles of Home Depot, and Ben carefully deliberates before picking out a brushed nickel doorknob—one that locks, even. “Is that really okay?” he asks (like Oliver from Oliver) and leans against me happily as I pay. I am thinking of long-ago fireworks—a film clip that plays in slow-mo of the children turning, terrified, and running into my open arms, tumbling, laughing, against me, and then running off again. A door is closing. It’s a metaphor and, also, it’s just the door—closing and opening, as doors do.

Author’s Note: Luckily, if Ben ends up seeing this piece, he’ll just skim it for the details about other people’s nice homes, and he won’t even realize it’s about him.

Catherine Newman is the author of the award-winning memoir Waiting for Birdy, and writes regularly for many different magazines, including FamilyFun, where she is a contributing editor, Real Simple, and the nonprofit kids’ cooking magazine, ChopChop. She writes about cooking and parenting on her blog at benandbirdy.blogspot.com.

It Gets Better

It Gets Better

Letter to My Teen Self ArtDear Me,

You know how you feel when you see the “Runaway Truck Ramp” sign on the highway? Like there must be an eighteen-wheeler barreling massively behind you, on the brakeless verge of destroying your beautiful, doomed life? You can picture the tiny, rosy-cheeked children screaming, clinging to you, since you are, of course, riding in the back with them the better to distribute string cheese and hand-holding and the occasional contorted breast, bared and stretched towards somebody’s crying face, but only if they’ve been crying for a long time. About to be crushed—all of it. But runaway truck also feels like a metaphor for something—for you, maybe, with your impulse to careen off alone to Portugal or Applebee’s, just so you can sit for five unmolested minutes with a sandwich and a glass of beer. Just so you can use the bathroom one time, without having a concurrent conversation about poop with the short person who has to stand with a consoling hand on your knee, looking worriedly up into your straining face. Later, it won’t be like that. You’ll see the sign, and the nearby gravelly uphill path, and you’ll think, “That’s a good idea, for the runaway trucks.” Also, you will shit alone.

You know how you know by heart the phone number of the Poison Control Center? Because the children, your constantly imperiled children, like to eat ice melt and suck batteries and help themselves to nice, quenching guzzles of cough medicine? You won’t know that number anymore.

One day, the children will eat neither pennies nor crayons nor great, gulping handfuls of sand like they have a powerful thirst for sand, sand, only sand. They will no longer choke on lint and disks of hot dog or fall down the stairs, their heads making the exact, sickening, hollow-melon thump that you knew they would make, when you knew they would fall down the stairs. They will still fall out of trees and off of trampolines. They will still scrape their elbows and knees and foreheads, and you will still be called upon to tend to these injuries. And you will be happy to, because they so rarely need you to kneel in front of them any more, to kiss them tenderly, here, and also here. Rest assured, though, that there will be ongoing opportunity for the knelling likelihood of doom and destruction. Ticks will attach their parasitic selves to the children’s scalps and groins; rashes and fevers and mysterious illnesses will seize everyone, and you will still go on a Googling rampage of “mild sore throat itchiness coma death.” The kids will still barf with surprising frequency—but competently, into tidy buckets, rather than in a spraying impersonation of a vomit-filled Super-Soaker on the drunk frat boy setting.

You know how you see germs everywhere? Every last microbe illuminated by the parental headlamp of your OCD? One day you won’t. One day you will handle doorknobs and faucets and even, like a crazy person, the sign-in pen at the pharmacy. In a public bathroom, the children will no longer need to touch and/or lick every possible surface. Seriously.

You know how you’re tired? So tired that you mistake talking in an exhausted monotone about your tiredness for making conversation? You won’t be tired. Or rather, you will sometimes be tired, sometimes rested, like regular people are. You won’t have to blearily skim the passage of the novel you’re reading, where the protagonist lies down on her soft bed, between crisp, clean sheets, your own eyes filled with tired, envious tears. You won’t daydream about rest and recumbency, lawn chairs and inflated pool rafts and white hotel comforters. You won’t look forward to the dentist, just so you can recline alone for forty heavenly, tartar-scraping minutes. One day, you will once again go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning. You will sleep as much as you want to. You’ll actually be shocked if you don’t get to, if a child is ill or can’t fall asleep, even though now you lie wedged into various cribs and cots, night after night, still as a button, while a small somebody drifts off and snaps awake gropingly and drifts off again. “How did we used to do it?” you will say, and your husband will shake his head and grimace. You will no longer be constantly scheming to lie down, tricking the kids into playing another round of “Sick Patient,” so you can be dead on the couch while they prod you therapeutically with plastic screwdrivers and the doll’s bottle. “I’m still not better,” you mumble now, but you will be. You really will.

One day, you’ll be sitting on the couch with your husband, reading the Sunday paper, and around the time you’re getting to the book review, you’ll think to ask, “Are the kids still sleeping?” And he’ll shrug without putting down the sports section. The kids might be sleeping, or they might be reading in their beds, playing with Legos, stroking the cat, bickering gently, resolving their differences. And you will be awake, even though you don’t have to be. I swear it on a stack of attachment-parenting books. Speaking of the newspaper: You will one day climb back into bed with the heavy wedge of folded sections and an unspilled mug of hot, milky coffee. You will even do the crossword puzzle—and all the puzzles you’ve been saving. It’s okay—I know about the newspaper that still arrives constantly, either because you’re in denial amount the way you recycle it unread, or because you cannot recall your account password and don’t have the intelligence or emotional resiliency to figure out how to cancel your subscription. But still you tear out the Sunday crossword and stuff it into your bedside table with this crazy idea that you might get to it later. And you will. You’ll open the drawer one evening (to ferret out some birth control, no less) and you’ll find the archaeological evidence of your optimism: hundreds of puzzles spanning a sizable chunk of the early millennium. And you’ll lie around doing them in a kind of ecstatic trance, practically eating bonbons and weeping with happiness.

You will have time to run and bike and do yoga and floss and have sex. And sometimes you won’t, but it won’t even be the children’s fault. It’s just that you’re lazy. Or doing a crossword puzzle.

You know your body? How it’s like baggy, poorly curated exhibit about reproduction? You know how your weaned bosom looks like a cross between a pair of used condoms and Santa’s sack, on the day after Christmas? All empty and stretched out with maybe one or two lumpy leftover presents that couldn’t be delivered? It will all get better. The bosom will never again look like a bursting gift-filled bag of awesome, that’s true. But it will look less harrowed by motherhood; the breasts, they will tighten up a bit. All of it will tighten up a bit and be yours again, to do with what you will. For example, your husband won’t gesture to you at a party after you’ve been nursing the baby. “What?” you mouth back now, sticking a fingernail between your teeth. “Spinach?” And he shakes his head and points at your front, and you look down to see the elastic top of your tank top, and how your left breast is hanging over it. That won’t happen any more. But it’s true that some of your many nipple hairs will turn gray.

Even though you’re older, though, you’ll actually be less hunched! One day, whenever you arrive somewhere, you will simply get out of the car and walk inside! You won’t be permanently bent over to deal with the car seat/seat belt/shoes/socks/sippy cups/diapers/turd on the floor. Why, you wonder, does so much of your current life take place below you? (It’s because the kids are small.) One day infants and diaper bags and hemorrhoids and boobs won’t be hanging off of your person like you’re a cross between a human mobile and a Sherpa and a performance art piece about Dante’s Inferno. The flip side is that there will be fewer cuddles. Lots still, but fewer. For example, every morning you will have to kiss your twelve-year-old good-bye not on the school walkway, but in the bushes before you get there, like you’re sneaky, chaste teenagers.

You know all those things you thought would be fun with kids, but secretly kind of aren’t? Going to museums, making biscuits, watching the Peter Sellers Pink Panther movies, ice skating, swimming, singing in the rain—how they all end in tears and pooping and everybody needing to be rocked to sleep in the sling? All those things really will be fun! You’re just doing them too soon because you’re bored of HI-Ho Cherry-o and the diaper-smell Children’s Room of the library and those hairshirts of conversation about would you stay partners with Daddy if he turned into a mosquito and was always buzzing around and stinging everybody but had his same face? One day, you will watch Monty Python and The King’s Speech with the kids, instead of Arthur’s Easter Egg Surprise and Caillou by Mistake Draws on a Library Book, and you will hardly believe your good luck. At the dinner table, you’ll talk about natural selection and socialized medicine. You’ll arrive at your campsite, and the children will carry wood and play beanbag toss, rather than cramming pinecones and beetles into their mouths before darting into the road to get run over by a Jeep. Your vigilance will ebb away until you actually take for granted how it feels to sit with a beer in your hand, looking unworriedly up at a sky full of stars with a lapful of big kid.

They will still believe in fairies. Sort of.

They will buckle their own seatbelts and make themselves toast and take their dishes to the sink instead of flinging them to the floor like the drunk, tyrannical fathers from Irish novels. They will do most, if not all, of the important things that you worry they’ll never be able to do, ever, such as following the pendulum of your finger with their gaze and wading in the neighbor’s inflatable pool and riding the merry-go-round (phew!). Speaking of merry-go-rounds: The years will start to fly by surreally, the seasons recurring like you’re captive on a deranged carousel of time. The dogwood will bloom, it will be Christmas, the dogwood will bloom again, the children will start middle school. That is how it will be.

They will stop doing most of the annoying things that you worry they’ll always do: They won’t sob into their cottage cheese for no reason, or announce guiltily, “Floss isn’t for eating,” or make you sing the ABCs like a lullaby, no, not like that, like this. They won’t ride the wheeled xylophone around the house like it’s a skateboard or lick spears of asparagus before leaving them, mysteriously, on the couch. They won’t talk about poop all the time. Kidding. They will still totally talk about poop all the time!

Not to be all baby out with the bathwater, but they’re also going to stop doing some of the things you love. They will learn that the line from “Eleanor Rigby” is not actually all the lonely peacocks. They won’t squint into the darkness and marvel at the moon beans, or hold their breaths when you pass the gravetary. They will no longer announce odd questions into the darkness of bedtime. “Mama, mama—how do cats turn into old cats?” And you will no longer sigh and say, “Time.” But they will be funnier on purpose. “Is that a robin?” your daughter will ask one day, pointing to a bird hopping along the hedge. When you say no, “Robins have red breasts,” she will say, “Plural? Breasts?” and use two index fingers to pantomime a bosom. They will make you laugh all the time, and they will make you think, and they will be exactly as beautiful as they are now. But with missing and giant teeth instead of those minuscule rows of pearls you so admire.

You know how you secretly worry that this is it, that it’s all downhill from here? I know you do. The children will turn into hulking criminals; their scalps will turn odorless; life will just generally suck. You lie in bed now during a thunderstorm, two sleeping, moonlight faces pressed against you, fragrant scalps intoxicating you, the rain on the roof like hoof beats, heartbeats—and the calamity of raising young children falls away because this is all you ever wanted. You boo-hoo noiselessly into the kids’ hair, because life is so beautiful, and you don’t want it to change. Enjoy it, do. But let me tell you—you won’t believe it, but let me—you will watch them sleeping still and always: the illuminated down of their cheeks, their dark puffs of lips and dear, dark wedges of eyelashes, and you will feel exactly the way you feel now. Only better.

Author’s Note: When Ben was three weeks old or so, sobbing in the front pack at the natural foods market while I fantasized about killing myself with an overdose of patchouli, a woman leaned in close to say, “Enjoy this. It’s such a fun age.” Then her head all but spun around, green vomit spraying from her mouth, when she added, “It’s all downhill from here.” So, I just want to be clear here that I wrote this piece not because I didn’t love having babies and toddlers swarming around for years and years, but because I loved  it so much that I was always paralyzed with terror about it ending. “Just you wait,” people have been saying doomfully to me for years. So I wanted to say it to you: just you wait. It gets even better. 

Brain, Child (Summer 2012)

Karl Marx Never Bought Spanx

Karl Marx Never Bought Spanx

winter2011_newman“So socialism means that everyone shares everything?” My seven-year-old daughter is trying to understand why I refer to our cooperative summer arrangement as “Socialist Friend Camp.” “And why do you always say it that way?” She means Slavically.

I sigh. “It’s hard to explain,” I say, and it’s true. The accent is only part of it; really what I want to do is move through my suburban life in full Karl Marx costume, complete with bushy grey beard, bushy grey hair, and Communist Manifesto. Somebody somewhere is probably marketing that costume and—irony!—profiting handsomely from it. O, the world!

The world. There has never been a more catastrophically extreme divide between the rich and the poor: While the wealthy evade taxes and install TVs the size of flattened hearses, twenty-seven thousand children die daily of preventable causes—even though there’s enough to go around, there is. But it doesn’t go around. At America’s biggest companies, the CEOs earn over five hundred times what the average worker does. It’s easy for me to point my revolutionary finger: There. Bazillionaire! Bad. But what about right here, in my warm, comfortable house with rooms galore and cupboards lined with food? “In a second I would give it all up, I would, if that’s the direction the world was headed,” I say, and I mean it. But when the children say, “So let’s,” I sigh. I barely have time to nag my husband to mow our lawn; the fomenting of a movement and then the actual moving feels beyond the scope of my bourgeois energy level.

But sometimes it feels a little devastating, the sweetness we cultivate in our children, our insistence that they share their Zhu Zhu Pets and Laffy Taffy. Why even bother teaching them the values of sharing and cooperation, when our national ethos is the hoarding of food and medicine, land and resources, like the good capitalists that we are?

Congratulations! we’ll say when they turn twenty-one. Now you can start drinking legally and stop behaving ethically! Maybe we’re just helping them get all that pesky sharing out of the way so it doesn’t burden them later, when they’re clambering over each other towards the teetering heights of personal wealth.

Did you see that Simon Rich piece in The New Yorker a while back? It was called “Play Nice: If adults were subjected to the same indignities as children…” and the part that made me laugh out loud was this:

Lou Rosenblatt: Can I drive your car? I’ll give it back when I’m done.

Mrs. Herson: I’m sorry, do I know you?

Lou Rosenblatt: No, but we’re the same age and we use the same garage.

Mrs. Herson: No offense, sir, but I really don’t feel comfortable lending you my car. I mean, it’s by far my most important possession.

Brian Herson: Mom, I’m surprised at you! What did we learn about sharing?

Mrs. Herson: You’re right . . . I’m sorry. Take my Mercedes.

And it’s funny, it is. Grown-ups sharing! But isn’t it even more comical to imagine the opposite? Kids treating each other the way grown-ups do? Pimping out the labor of their peers, CEOing the babysitting and lawn-mowing to exploit each other for profit? Some kids unfettered in their wealth and greed, piggy banks overflowing, while other kids, the ones doing the actual work, can’t make a living wage? Ha ha ha! Oh, right, it’s not actually funny. I hate to become the embodiment of finger-wagging bummerhood, but seriously—is sharing the real indignity?

*   *   *

“From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” My kids are learning the Marxist formula, like good little card-carrying Socialists. But it doesn’t help that I am, as always, fuzzy on the details of my political passion. For instance: card-carrying, which, for some reason, I have always pictured more like Hallmark than ID. Because I am a Socialist / What’s mine is yours, you get the gist… I don’t mention to the kids the sexistly troubling fact that Mrs. Marx was likely stabbing platters of sliced bratwurst with toothpicks and pouring endless glasses of vodka for the meetings of the real Socialists, who were, of course, men.

Besides graduate school—where I T.A.ed a Marxist Theory class, pet-sat cats named Lenin and Trotsky, and found myself frequently flattened beneath various anvil-style monologues about dialectical materialism and commodity fetishism—everything I know about alternatives to Capitalism I know from the Woody Allen movies Bananas and Love and Death. Also from growing up in the age of Cold War propaganda. Remember how Nadia Comaneci’s gold-medal floor routines were interspersed with footage of her parents waiting greyly in assorted sleeting bread lines? My own Russian grandmother seemed to spend the 1970s making borscht and sending relatives home to the mother country with suitcases full of jeans. “You vill sell, yes?” The poor Communists didn’t even have jeans! Those glum kerchief-headed kids, waiting denimlessly for their heavy Soviet loaves.

Whose joke is it that Socialist recreation consists of waiting in line for tickets to the toilet-paper line? I want my kids to maintain their optimistic vision of utopian justice, without misleading them about the fact that there aren’t such great examples of it in human history. Or at least, none that I can explain very well. Sweden, for example. Besides the making meatballs and the becoming supermodels, what actually goes on in Sweden? Do they stand in IKEA lines for their national allotment of Smorssgläben side tables in birch? I have no idea. Beyond the better maternity leave, healthcare, and some kind of national right to blondness, I don’t know much. Which doesn’t seem to dam the stream of opinions pouring from my political face hole.

*   *   *

“Let’s play Proletariat Revolution again!” my red-diaper babies beg. “You be Hegel. We’ll be the alienated workers.”

“Not until you finish your turnip porridge,” I say, “and scrub the community toilets.” If only. We get out Monopoly like good citizens, so that we can learn about private property and screwing everybody. “You’d be able to get rich,” I explain to my losing children, “if you weren’t already so poor!” Suckers. Actually, Monopoly is dull compared to Acquire, a game from which Ben has learned the terms “corporate merger” and “majority shareholder”; playing it brings out the slum lord in everybody, all of us cackling and rubbing our hands together like evil flies. On principle, we also play Harvest Time, which is gentle and cooperative: We help each other hurry our crops into the root cellar before winter comes, but it is so frankly dull that we end up with our foreheads on the table, groaning, even while our little daughter is offering us some of her corn and carrots because she’s got more than she needs.

The kids talk about what they would wish for if they could have anything, distinguishing between just-for-being-selfish wishes (our own personal soda machine with soda in it that you would actually let us drink) and the real wish you would wish if you only had one wish (justice). “If you had limitless money,” Ben always prompts me, “then you could get the stuff you want and still buy everyone everything they need, right?” He pictures stacks and stacks of million-dollar bills, glad-handing his way to health and happiness for all, even as the Coke dispenser is being installed in our new billiards room. I explain that a radical redistribution of wealth is more complicated—more like beads moved around on an abacus than extra rows of beads added onto it—but it’s not what I actually picture. Justice: a cool hand smoothing the forehead of our feverish world.

*   *   *

“Oh, please,” I say aloud to the radio. “Obama’s not enough of a Socialist.” People are always quick to remind you that communism has never worked. And, sure, Cuba, China, the Soviet Union: too little fun, too much corruption—plus the executing of everybody who wasn’t already incarcerated. But what about Capitalism? It does seem to sleet less now in Eastern Europe, what with everyone’s access to bright pastels, the denim trousers without borders. But it’s hard to argue that capitalism is working exactly. Unless your goal was rich countries profiting off the backs of poor ones; unless your goal was freedom for the wealthy to run the endless Möbius-strip treadmill of paycheck-to-mall meaninglessness. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of crap you don’t need and also the Pottery Barn lidded baskets to store it all in. I’m glad I’m not, say, a serf—but at least with Feudalism, nobody was tricked into thinking that anyone could be king if they only worked hard enough or got a basketball scholarship.

*   *   *

Across the table from me now, Ben is eating a piece of blueberry crumb cake and showing me his fifth-grade homework. “It’s a compare and contrast chain about ‘Wakaima and the Clay Man,'” he explains, “which is a story about a lazy rabbit who makes an elephant do all the work on the farm. We’re supposed to show how it’s like a real-life situation.” He has described them as the fable version of factory owners and exploited workers. I have never been prouder. Workers of the world, unite!

“Why are you writing about it?” Ben asks pleasantly, crumbs spraying as he leans over to look at my computer screen. “I’m writing a piece about talking to kids about capitalism,” I tell him, and he says, “Wait, what’s capitalism again?”

Oh.

This is probably where I should mention that Ben’s life goal is to own the world’s biggest casino. And also, you know, to promote justice. “When really rich people come and lose money,” he explains, “I’ll give that money away to an organization.” The Robin Hood of Las Vegas!

I’m not really surprised. It must be confusing to be the child of such a split-personality family. On the one hand, we have a young mother living with her baby in our guest room, and we get our Patagonia fleece hoodies at the Salvation Army. On the other hand, we send our kids to (wince) private school and plant peonies. We pick through bunches of organic kale when the world is full of people who aren’t eating at all—when across town from us, there are mothers picking through outdated cans in the food pantry, and across the world from us there are mothers rocking dying babies. What if my own children were ill in my arms, stilled by malnutrition or malaria, and I looked across the globe and saw people like us, in our cozy New England cape house, with our shoes for every season and our compost heaped with uneaten food? I don’t know what to think. It’s not right, living this way. It’s not fair. We teach our kids to share because we know it’s the only way to thrive, all of us.

In his 1949 paper “Why Socialism?” Albert Einstein, of e=mc, proposed eliminating the “grave evils” of capitalism via “a planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow-men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.”

I’m no physicist, but that kind of relativity? I get it. I do.

Author’s Note: At some point I was sitting around with friends, and we were drinking wine and yelling at our kids to share something fairly—jelly beans, I think. And then we were killing ourselves laughing, imagining training them from an early age to be good capitalists. (Which is, of course, the piñata model of distribution.) We were maybe a little drunk, but it triggers something deep, teaching kids fundamental values that aren’t always embraced by the broader culture. And honestly? This piece—it’s hard to put out there because I’m confessing such a profound hypocrisy. That line about my kids going to private school, for example—I deleted and retyped it a dozen times. I have good intentions; I’m selfish; I crave justice; I seek comfort. I judge myself harshly, but I hope you won’t judge me. I hope.

Brain, Child (Winter 2011)

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Bored Again

Bored Again

bored_again art“Mama, isn’t pucely the puceliest pucely you ever did puce?”

Pucely—a derivative of pussy—is what our seven-year-old daughter calls the cat. She is in love with the cat. (“Oh my God!” she cries, rushing at houseguests with the cat in her arms, her nose buried in his fur. “You have got to smell my pussy!”) Now she is lying on our couch on her back, bare-chested in shorty pajama bottoms. She appears to be watching the ceiling fan. “Isn’t he, Mama?”

“He is.”

“But isn’t he the very puceliest?”

“The very,” I say. “Do you want me to help you find something to do?”

“No.” She scratches her mosquito-bitten ankles. “I don’t want to do anything.” At least not anything but gurgle in the back of her throat a long, low sound that’s like a cross between growling and gagging.

I used to make the exact same sound. I also used to make a different sound using a lollipop that I sucked vibratingly against the side of my cheek. And one through my trumpeted-together lips, cheeks puffed out, that sounded like a grass whistle being blown by an elephant, but softly. “Mom, she’s doing it again.” I drove my older brother crazy—but no crazier than I drove myself, so it seemed fair enough.

My husband and I laughed recently when the Mad Men mom—with her comically retro exasperation—says to a restless child, “Only boring people are bored.”

Indeed. And also: Bored people are boring. It’s the behavioral equivalent of humidity: a vague clamminess that drapes itself around you like a cloak knitted from the damp wool of torpor. Bored people complain and make weird mouth sounds and memorize the Sears Wish Book like they expect to be tested on it. (Training bras, page 23, Barbie Styling Head, real pretend make-up sold separately, page 60.) Also, there’s the nausea. I don’t mean it in some kind of Sartrian existential way—just that my memories of childhood boredom are often twinned with my memories of feeling like I might barf.

For example: the record player. Home with the flu, my brother and I would sprawl on the living-room floor while the Beatles’ Red Album turned around and around the hi-fi; we lay back-down on the carpet or cheek-down on the wood; we watched the dizzifying vinyl; we studied the liner notes, like British-Invasion scripture that we already knew by heart. We had a comprehensive mental catalogue of the lyrics, even if we didn’t understand them. (Did you know, for instance, that “Norwegian Wood” is about something less like the Scandinavian forest I’d always pictured than like birch IKEA bookcases? Me neither.) It was the only record that we had, and listening to it was not the background to what we were doing; it was what we were doing.

“Love Me Do,” “Paperback Writer,” “Day Tripper,” “Eleanor Rigby.” (Was her actual face in a jar by the door?) To hear those songs even now is to be plunged into a kind of queasy ennui born of repetition crossed with both tedium and illness. Bang bang Maxwell’s silver hammer came down upon my head—but dully.

And then there was the car. Road trips meant a single sickening piece of original-flavor Trident and listening to my parents listen to the metallic top-of-the-hour news jingle. (Dee dee di-dee dee. “1010 WINS news. You give us twenty-two minutes, we’ll give you the world.” Deedle-y dee dee, deedle-y dee dee.) If it was raining, you could lean your cheek against the glass to watch the drops gather and skid, gather and skid, the boredom itself gathering up into a kind of carsickness that occasionally had to be barfed out the window.

Boredom is like a fever dream, like the way you feel staring at the wallpaper’s repeated pattern while you lie sweaty in your sickroom, listening to the clinking silverware and muted laughter of life happening elsewhere. Bored thoughts flap around like a fish on the deck of a sailboat that’s going nowhere in a windless bay. “But sometimes it feels good to be bored, right?” I ask the kids now.

Ben says, “I think if it feels good then that’s not boredom. It’s the difference between wanting to not do anything, which is nice, versus there not being anything you want to do, which is being bored.” Boredom is that agitated space between relaxation and action: Dialed down, it can become a pleasant kind of inertia or meditative stillness, where it feels good to sit quietly with your own thoughts; cranked up a notch, it can produce creative release. But that middle place is the boredom itself—restlessness with no movement. A dull and desperate longing for something else, something more or less.

It’s a strange kind of luxury, boredom—a luxury full of loss. Read the Little House on the Prairie books with your kids, and you just can’t help envying the absence of boredom: They are simply too busy starving to death and having a fire-baked potato explode in their eye and chasing locusts off their crops to experience a moment’s ennui. The kids like to imitate them: “We each got an orange and a wooden button, and it was the best Christmas ever!”—but they envy the inherent meaningfulness of Laura and Mary’s lives, these pioneer children who were never stuck at a birthday party sticking foam die-cuts to a visor with tacky glue. Even my own childhood now feels quaintly creative. We did not have endless bags of rainbow-colored chenille stems to bend and discard; we had my dad’s actual white pipe cleaners, and you could take just enough to shape a pair of glasses—five—before he’d notice them missing. We had rubber bands and tinfoil and 101 Uses for a Dead Cat, which I read while laughing Fiddle Faddle out of my nose.

Which is not so different from my kids. Ben can spend an entire day reading Far Side comics in his pajamas or picking Brandi Carlile songs out on the piano. Birdy eventually thuds to the carpet for her cat-talking, fan-watching stupor, and is motivated by this act of gravity to get out the colored pencils and draw a picture of her Care Bears jigsaw puzzle. Then she builds a Lego battleship. Then she wanders outside to arrange bark and moss into a house for the fairies, which she situates next to a toadstool “in case it rains and they need an umbrella.”

I am not trying to sound like one of those crafty-mama blogs that makes you want to kill yourself, the kind you bookmark one day because you think that putting out a wooden bowl of felt gnomes sounds like a good idea (“felt gnomes?” you add vaguely to your to do list), but then you unbookmark it the next when you realize that the bowl is supposed to get refilled every morning with a different inspiring and wool-based activity and it is just too fucking much to deal with. And yet. You do have to learn boredom, learn to live with it, to manage it with the power of your own mind, without recourse to video games or bungee jumping or sniffing glue or starting a nuclear war or date raping your roommate’s girlfriend. The most dangerous people we know are the least able to sit still, to be inside an absence of motion: they are the most inclined to leave their families, to be addicts, to keep the TV on twenty-four hours a day, to kill themselves. But to manage boredom quietly? That’s one of life’s great skills: to allow its nothingness to resolve into wonder, imagination, illumination, or mindfulness, like a blurry picture that focuses suddenly into beauty. It’s a kind of inoculation against catastrophic restlessness.

Also, it prepares you for having kids: what to expect when you weren’t expecting your whole life to turn into Waiting for Godot, with Godot himself turning out to be almost as boring as the waiting. Captive under a nursing baby, you call upon all your car-tripping skills, all your floor-lying practice. The baby poops and cries and spits up in your hair, and it is all one big long meditation, half way between tedium and franticness.

(“Wake me if I actually do anything,” Ben said recently, watching a very long video we’d taken of him as a newborn, kicking microscopically on his changing table.) The baby wants to play Candy Land and Hi-Ho! Cherry-O and some weird zoo game where you’re both dying dolphins, and you breathe in and out slowly through your nose and notice the way the sunlight is catching the down along those ripe peaches of her biceps. The baby wants to read Maisy’s Bedtime and Maisy’s Morning on the Farm and Where is Maisy? and your brain threatens to contract and shrivel into a dried pea rattling around your skull, but instead you inhale the baby’s summer-smell scalp that is pressed fragrantly against your face, (Also you occupy your mind with estimating Lucy Cousin’s net worth.) The baby wants you to sing the ABCs, but like a lullaby, no not like this—here she warbles like Katharine Hepburn calling to loons on Golden Pond—like that, yes, again. Again, Mama. Again. And you sing and you sing and her darkly lashed eyes flutter and close, the beloved rose of her face open and slack in sleep.

The baby, bored, wants first to clobber you with her berserkness (“Booty dance, booty dance, booty dance shakes a booty in your face!”) and then to talk boringly about the cat some more. “He’s pretty Pucely, right, Mama?”

“Please, honey.”

“I know. But Mama?”

“Birdy?”

“What if Pucely forgot that he hadn’t pooped yet? And then he pooped on your face!”

“Yup,” I say. “That would be something.”

“Right?” she says, excited. “Right? What if he pooped right on your face!

“Do you need me to help you find something to do?” I ask again, and she says,

“No. I’m pretty busy.”

Author’s Note: “Do you think a piece about boredom is going to be boring?” I asked Michael as I was working on this, and he said, “It depends how boring it is.” Hm. “I don’t know,” I said. “It might be boring. But is it weird to be so nostalgic about boredom?” I asked, but he had already glazed over. I am boredom personified, it turns out. Hallelujah.

Brain, Child (Fall 2010)

Natural (and Unnatural) Selection

Natural (and Unnatural) Selection

spring2010_newmanI’m talking to the kids about the Galapagos Islands because it’s Darwin’s birthday. “No it’s not,” my partner, Michael, interjects. “It’s the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species.”  Whatever. I am in love with evolution, but what exactly happened out at Galapagos I’m less clear about: Dinosaurs turned into Komodo dragons, which sprouted legs and crewed the S.S. Beagle? Something. I attend to ideas in passionate—if brief—flurries of attention; I can be aghast over a headline I’ve misinterpreted in a newspaper story I haven’t actually read. “They’re replacing school nurses with robots!” I might cry, indignant, and Michael will say, “I think that’s just an article about MIT graduate students.” Oh.

“Distraction is adaptive,” I explain to the children. “If I did only one thing at a time, your lunchboxes would be packed every day with air and then you’d never survive to reproduce now, would you?”

No. They would not. Biologist Ernst Mayr summarized Darwin’s theory this way: “Individuals more suited to the environment are more likely to survive and more likely to reproduce and leave their inheritable traits to future generations, which produces the process of natural selection.” Force open your rusted-over junior-high-school mind, sift through your Duran Duran memorabilia, and call this up. Remember? No, not the smooth and wrinkled peas—that was genetics (Doesn’t “Mendel’s Peas” sound like a vegetarian deli? Or maybe a Hungarian garage band.). Keep sifting. It’s the other thing—the pale peppered moths on dark trees getting picked off by the birds. Remember? Or has “survival of the fittest” kind of blurred into “Manifest Destiny,” and now it gives you a bad white-people-giving-away-free!-small-pox-blankets feeling to recall it? It’s not like that. Nor does survival of the fittest really have a fitness component—it doesn’t mean that your daughter’s ropey and muscled karate instructor will thrive to birth a million babies like a sea turtle while you, with your giant corduroy thighs rubbing together with a shkrrr-shkrrr sound (I’m just imagining here) will drop immediately dead; it’s more like genetic calisthenics. Which is why the term “reproductive success” has nothing to do with foreplay, Tantric ecstasy, or simultaneous climaxing. It’s about whether particular traits help a particular organism live long enough to produce offspring. Your husband could do you from behind while you were bent over to sort the Tupperware drawer. And if you got pregnant and passed along your organizational skills to your offspring? Evolutionary Bingo! Reproductive success.

But for now, the kids and I stick to our conversations about various visible traits and how they might be adaptive, and let me say this: If you live in the world as a student of natural selection, you will never be bored. The children study the eyes of animals to determine if they’re predators or prey. Prey have those nervous side eyes, usually with the big nervous ears, twitching and swiveling all around to see who’s coming to eat them and from where; picture a bunny, a mouse, Bambi’s dead mother. Predators’ eyes stare out from the front of their heads. “The better to chase you with, my dear,” ten-year-old Ben says in his best Big Bad Wolf voice, even though we humans are predators, too (except for maybe your one cousin with the nervous side eyes whom you feel a strange urge to chase).

We stroke our pussycat and analyze him for adaptivity: fur to keep him warm, of course; whiskers to avoid bumping into nighttime doorways; and what about purring? We don’t know. “It makes you want to take care of him,” Ben hypothesizes, which is so totally true. I picture the kittens turning on their irresistible little motors, the mother cat thinking, “Oh, fine,” and rolling over to expose her rows of exhausted teats. I picture my babies smiling up at me at the exact moment I was contemplating how discreetly to rid myself of them; I picture myself weeping instead, spilling over with love, and yoinking a milky boob from my nightgown. They’ve actually studied this—the way babies’ smiles trigger massive hits of dopamine and oxytocin in their parents, biological and adoptive both. Street drugs could kill you, but nature’s drugs might just keep you alive.

“Being cute is adaptive,” six-year-old Birdy says, as if reading my mind. She’s thinking still about the pussycat, but I’m thinking about her: the big eyes, the helpless littleness, the wobbly dependence.

I kiss her plummy cheeks and say, “It is.”

“So is being beautiful,” Ben says, hair falling around his face like dark silk, his lips the color of berries. “Like the male hummingbirds.” We watched one at the feeder all summer: a head sleeked over with emerald feathers, the neck banded in iridescence. I’m sure the girls were going crazy. I picture the scarlet cardinal seducing his fawn-colored mate, male peacocks fanning the riot of their tails, the hot crimson wattles of a cock. Why the human equivalent is a boozy grin from a barstool remains a mystery. At least to me.

But sex is a big part of it, right? All the pleasure-rigged engineering that keeps the species from extinction, all the stinky snatches of body hair like so much pheromonal quicksand, the blood rushing hither and yon in its tumescent quest for continuity. “Enjoy it,” I like to tease Michael, nudely. “I’m going to be done with this after menopause.” If it were adaptive for us to have sex for our entire lives, would our coochies really dry up like that at a certain point? Is Viagra an adaptive invention—everyone’s grandpa running around with a four-hour woody? I don’t know. I don’t understand the relationship between technology and nature. Because as it is, I never feel more special—in the species sense—than when I’m ovulating. That pull towards sex then? It’s pure animal survival. Michael is always thrilled, if a little daunted—that growled “fuck me” emanating adaptively from the very throat of my DNA.

Of course the danger here is that evolutionary arguments, rather than remaining the grand, analytical riddles that they are, get mustered to justify various patterns of domination: Women should suckle everybody; gay people should concede the barren hydraulics of their coupling; pregnancy should end in birth. Gender inequality; the Defense of Marriage Act; threats to Roe v. Wade. Danger, danger, danger. That’s why you have to get kids with the program, and get them there early and inarguably.

“Clearly,” I explain, “we’ve adapted to the point where, whether we’re gay or straight, we understand how to have or not have babies, which is the most healthy thing for human beings.” Reproductive technology is adaptive for replicating the species; reproductive freedom is adaptive for women’s health and population control. It makes perfect sense to the kids, in the same way that justice and helping other people also makes perfect evolutionary sense to them. (We see where rugged individualism has gotten us: a world of drowning polar bears, slave labor, illness, the bogglingly unjust distribution of wealth, of poverty.)

“Also karate,” Birdy says. “Karate is totally adaptive for girls and women because it keeps you”—here she kicks her leg out and aiiiiiiis fiercely—”safe.” Indeed. Mostly, though, we speak not in philosophical abstractions, but in the interest of solving an endless series of evolutionary logic puzzles. Maybe it’s the way other families talk about God: We are awestruck. Milkweed blows far and wide, a botanical Don Juan, we conclude. Acorns thunk straight down beneath the sheltering oaks. “They must grow better if they’re close to their moms, ” Birdy theorizes from my lap. A pomegranate stuns us, its seeds packed together like a ruby-filled auditorium. “Maybe it attracts the birds so that the tree can get them to poop out its seeds all over the place.” Probably it does.

“Poor berries,” Ben sighs. “They didn’t plan on the sewer system, all us humans just flushing their seeds down.” I picture—but don’t mention—the related phenomenon of jizz-soaked teenaged Kleenex, like so much potential life sneezed away. Ben thinks for a minute, toilets flushing over his head like light bulbs, then asks, “What about poop?”

I laugh. “What about poop?” It’s a favorite topic of conversation.

“Why does poop smell bad, do you think?” When I lob over the classic parental Why do you think poop smells bad? he says, “Probably so you won’t eat it.” We picture an entire race of sickened people dying off, their poop smelling like Rice Krispie Treats.

But really? Evolution is nature at its most enchanted: the beaker of science fizzing over with magic. It is logic and mystery, life and death, the omniscience of a god, but without the burning-in-hell morality. Without any morality at all, actually. Ben, considering our resident swivel-headed, night-vision barn owl and the big-eared, nose-twitching mice, muses, “Nature just lets them duke it out. They both adapted for what they need—chasing or getting away—and then they just do their best.”

And so do we, given that we are programmed to be here and then not—to die one day, despite how ferociously attached we may be to life. At the top of a fire tower, after a gorgeous and vigorous hike, Ben wondered recently about death. “It’s funny,” he said. “I mean, it’s obviously adaptive for the species as a whole for people to die. Otherwise you’d just have, like, a bazillion people everywhere, fighting over everything. But then, how did nature select for death? Because dead people? They were dead. They couldn’t exactly pass along the dying trait.” Holy necrophilia. Although he’s more right than he might know: Programmed cell death is one of the least well-understood biological traits; cells don’t have to die, but they do.

“Whoa,” says a fellow hiker, a stranger to us, raising his disturbed eyebrows at my pretty, pink-cheeked son. “Deep.”

When I ask Ben what has prompted this revelation, he says, “Being kind of tempted to jump off the fire tower.” Oh. “But then knowing I would die if I did. I guess it’s adaptive for me personally to not want to die.” I guess it is. I think about teenagers everywhere, the danger that their will to thrive will ebb treacherously away. And I cross my fingers and send up a kind of evolutionary prayer. We may be programmed to desire that our offspring live to reproduce themselves—but it just feels like love.

Author’s Note: I love the idea of Lamarckism: the so-called “soft” theory of evolution that allows for acquired characteristics to be passed on to offspring—a theory that gets regularly debunked and resurrected. I like to willfully misinterpret it to mean that my children, born of two half-Jews, will pass on a genetic love of frying latkes in bacon grease. My father likes to willfully misinterpret it to explain the impatience I inherited from growing up in an impatient household. “Your mother—always craning her nosy head around,” a giraffe probably said to his kid at some point. “You get your long neck from her.”

Brain, Child (Spring 2010)

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Two Hearts Beat as One

Two Hearts Beat as One

fall2009_newmanI am thinking soulfully of the U2 song, but what my kids are thinking of is poop. This is not atypical; poop is, in fact, the paradigm for much of their philosophical reflection. “Gosh, I don’t know,” Birdy is saying. “You’d have to sit and sit and wait and wait and just be so bored while the other person was pooping.” I picture us in the gas station bathroom just yesterday, me leaning against the wall of the stall, breathing through my mouth, eager to get back on the road, while Birdy grunted and groaned and wound toilet paper around and around her hand and hummed a little bit of “Rainbow Connection” and then exclaimed, laughing, “Gosh, I forgot for a second what I was even trying to do in here!”

“You’re right,” I say now. “I bet it can be pretty boring.”

“But you’d never be lonely,” Ben sighs—Ben, this tender-hearted ten-year-old who still bolts into our bedroom in the dead of night, driven by a loneliness that beats in his body like a second heart. “Though it could be kind of hard to learn to swim.”

My children are somewhat obsessed with conjoined twins, their awe and fascination marinated in the brine of a salty something that tastes a lot like existential angst. I get this, and not only because I, too—at their age and still—have felt the tug of curiosity in this exact direction, but also because conjoined twins offer a kind of de facto case study of personhood. Would you still be you if you were your own self in a shared body? Your independent will in a dependent package? As Patty Hensel, the mother of conjoined twins Abby and Brittany, puts it so beautifully, “They’re two girls wrapped in the same blanket.” This particular pair of sisters each has a head and a heart, but share their other limbs and organs: one liver, one uterus, two arms, two legs. Ask them if they have two heads and they roll their eyes, say, “No.” Because, duh, they each have one head.

And I know this because up late in a motel room, Michael and I watched the Discovery Channel special about them turning sixteen and learning to drive. These happy, fearless Minnesotan kids with their shiny ponytails and spunk, bickering over when to signal and turn. My God, can you imagine your kids sharing arms and legs? It’s hard enough for mine to share Laffy Taffy. You can’t help admiring the parents with their Midwestern absence of nonsense: These are kids with household chores and sturdy egos. You can’t help wishing for that kind of confidence and character for your own. In fact, we almost woke ours to watch with us—they would have loved these girls—but then we didn’t know how to feel. It was such a guilty pleasure, this sating of our own voyeuristic curiosity. There they are, so sassy, so teen-glossy, in their cute Aeropostale tank top; there they are, e-mailing their friends, doing each other’s hair, playing softball, stopping at school lockers to gossip and giggle. When Brittany says that they plan to be moms, but then snaps that when and who they date “is none of the world’s business,” you feel slapped, as if she knew that you were just then wondering about that very thing.

Which is how I always felt as a kid reading Very Special People: The Phenomenal Bestseller That Reveals the Real Lives of Human Oddities—Their Loves and Triumphs. This is a book that I rummaged from a bookshop bargain bin, and then spent countless summer afternoons poring over while all my little ten-year-old friends were braiding lanyard key chains and swimming in each other’s pools. Given my own personality, the attraction to human oddities was really no great mystery. But then here was a book that, like pornography, invited you to stare at the very things from which you knew you were supposed to look away: extra and missing limbs, beards on ladies, folks who were microscopically tiny or wildly humongous; The Mule-Faced Woman; The Dog-Faced Boy; The Elastic-Skin Man.

There were photographic plates of all of them, all uncomfortably riveting, but only the conjoined twins opened up a can of existential worms. You’d still be you with three legs or no legs, after all; you’d be you even if you were the limbless “Caterpillar Man,” rolling cigarettes with your lips, or if you were featured hirsutely in the chapter, “Hairy, Hairy People” (as I doubtless will be soon). But what if your body were not yours alone? What about the saxophone-playing Hilton sisters, joined at the spine? What about Radica and Doodica Orissa, connected at the chest? “When one took medicine, the other felt its effect” was a claim that struck—and stuck with—me. Even then it felt like a metaphor, though I wasn’t sure for what. Compassion, maybe? It was a sibling trait I sorely lacked. Somewhere deep down, I worried that my own brother could have lain writhing on the floor, and I would have hopped over him to yoink the last Fudgsicle from the freezer.

But, like that of my own kids now, my curiosity was often scatological in nature. The same way I wondered where Laura and Mary pooped when they were snowed in for shockingly cheerful months on end, I wondered about the Tocci brothers, who, the book pointed out, shared a rectum. (I can’t help picturing my kids in a whining argument about whose turn it is to wipe). Or Chang and Eng Bunker who, married to a pair of sisters, fathered twenty-one children between them. And there’s just no getting around the twenty-one certain instances of conjoined doing it required by that count of offspring. This latter is so preoccupying a subject that it actually seems to have generated a whole entire novel, Chang and Eng, by Darin Strauss. Oh, sure, it’s about other stuff, too: nineteenth-century Thailand and American slavery, for instance. But when you get to the procreation half of the book, you realize that the whole thing has been written in response to the question: How on earth did they have sex? Like the punch line to the joke about porcupines: very carefully. And the imaginary plot twist of one of the twins cheating with the other’s wife is almost too ecstatically strange to bear.

For my own kids, though, it’s not sex they’re curious about, not just yet. It’s the umbrella category privacy—someone else snatching a peek at your nethers, say—that gets them. “For me?” Birdy says suddenly over a plate of spaghetti. “The worst thing if you were a joined twin? You couldn’t get privacy to go to the bathroom.” Really? That’s the worst thing? I scroll through the six years of her life and wonder how many times out of a hundred she has yelled from the bathroom for company, wonder how many times out of a hundred I have actually finished my own wiping and flushed before she barged in.

“I know exactly what you mean,” Ben is saying now. “What if you pulled down your pants, and you were, like, Hey everyone, look at my penis! Then you’d be showing everyone your brother’s penis, too!” Ben thinks for a moment, absentmindedly drinking out of his sister’s water glass. “But I guess you wouldn’t really do that. You just couldn’t. Being a conjoined twin would be good that way—I mean, it would make you a better person, a kinder person. You wouldn’t always get what you wanted.” Another moment of quiet drinking follows. “Not that you do anyways,” he adds, which seems somehow to be the point exactly.

Maybe Ben is wrestling with a fantasy of unfettered independence—a fantasy that keeps getting disrupted by his identification with conjoined twins; he keeps realizing that his own independence is, in fact, fettered. He is not, after all, like my free-bird ex-boyfriend, tripping off to Santa Fe to play ultimate Frisbee and drop acid every other day without a shred of concern for anybody else’s pesky feelings, not that I remember or care. For better or worse, Ben’s life is conjoined with ours. “Or what if you’re on a road trip,” he’s saying now, “and one of you has to use the bathroom, but it’s not actually the best time to stop and find a bathroom?”

“Um, honey?” I say, picturing our various national tours of fast-food restaurant toilets. “That’s basically every road trip our family has ever taken.”

He laughs but can’t stop with his conjoined case studies. “Or, like, at fairs, if one person wanted to go on the roller coaster and the other didn’t? That would be kind of hard.” Yes, that would be kind of hard: I know this, given that my kids insist on each other’s company on the merry-go-round or Tilt-A-Whirl, but rarely agree on which rides to try. “Or on a trip? If one person wanted to go to a clam shack but the other wanted, like, barbecue?”

“Isn’t that kind of what it’s like anyways?” I ask gently, and Ben laughs again.

“Oh yeah, right! It’s not like I’m just eating alone in a clam shack because that’s what I wanted!” I think about the Hensel twins saying, so beautifully simply, “We take turns a lot.” Exactly.

Birdy can’t help taking her visions of conjoinedness to accidentally absurd endpoints. “What if you just had one brain and one face and one body?” Her eyes are wide with the shock of imagination.

“Um, Birdy?” Ben says. “Then you’d just be a regular single person.”

“Oh, right!” Birdy laughs, while Michael whispers to me, “A regular single schizophrenic person.”

But I understand. She’s testing out her difference from us: After years of behaving transparently, kids learn at a certain point that the movie screens of their minds play for them and them alone. Privacy and independence come on suddenly, like a sleeper wave of separation, and children experience this with simultaneous relief and dread. Birdy is different from us—connected, but apart—and after an umbilical fetus-hood and a nursling babyhood, this seems to be hard to grasp. I explain to her about the way Chang and Eng mixed first-person singular and plural in utterances like, “We am Chang-Eng.” It actually reminds me of Birdy herself as a comically pronoun-challenged toddler, never knowing if, as a speaker, she was “I” or “you.” “Are you hungry?” you’d ask her, and she’d reply, heartbreakingly, “You am.”

Thinking about conjoined twins is somehow making concrete for us the family condition of connection and compromise, the childhood condition of separation and dependence, the parental condition of empathy and encumberedness. And it’s not that conjoined twins exist as a metaphor, of course; they’re not here for us; they’re not simply a screen onto which we get to project our curiosity and philosophical questions. One egg split into two consciousnesses, that’s why they’re here, and you only have to watch Abby and Brittany for one minute to grasp their fundamentally unabstract humanness. In fact, I’m thinking now of this one still photo of them as little girls—a black and white picture of them in a swimsuit by the pool, with their frightened faces, their arms wrapped protectively around each other while a little boy gapes at them from the water. And what I feel, looking at that photo, is what it’s like to be their parents. To be any parent. The way you ache when they ache, the way you experience their stomachaches or heartaches or fear in your very self. It’s as if, having once been placentally connected to your beating heart, having once inhabited your actual body, your children continue to live there with you. For better and worse, you are never alone again. Sex might test your apartness from another person, but parental love defies it utterly. With a pair of small, beloved feet pressed hot against my belly, I have burned with a fever not my own; and as Tylenol cooled that body, I have known relief. When one took medicine, the other felt its effect. This love is an affliction, a true human oddity. I have never been so conjoined in all my life.

“We am Birdy-Mama,” my daughter teases from my lap.

But then Ben is saying suddenly, “Oh gosh. Another thing? If one of them dies?” Then the other will die, too. I hear it before he even says it—think of Chang’s dying hours after he felt Eng’s fatal coldness, his heart broken literally and figuratively by the broken heart of his brother. He refused to be separated, even then, even if it meant saving his own life. I think of parents everywhere—the feeling you have that you’d die if your child died, though you wouldn’t. You’d grieve and live and perhaps even thrive in your truncated self, though the ache of the missing part would never leave you. This is an individual feeling, yes, but one that exceeds the beating of a single heart. My eyes fill with tears. Only then what Ben actually says is, “I mean, you’d have to, like, drag around a—yuck—dead body everywhere you went.” He shudders, adds, “Gross,” and I am reminded for the umpteenth time that we have shared a body, this child and I, I have imagined him almost as a second self, but then, like Chang and Eng, like Abby and Brittany, we are two different people after all.

Author’s Note: I’m worried that it sounds here like all we do as a family is sit around chatting merrily about other people’s physical challenges—Wow, if you were blind, you’d sure trip over everything!—especially given the ugly, terrorizing history of the “normal,” which has always felt fully entitled, it seems, to marshal gigantic armies of alleged oddity to define itself against. Which is what I want my children to grasp: that every time you point to another person and think, “That,” you might imagine a filament casting off the rod of your finger to catch that person and reel them in close; you might consider pointing back at yourself, and thinking, “Me, too.”

Brain, Child (Fall 2009)

Catherine Newman is the author of the award-winning memoir Waiting for Birdy, and writes regularly for many different magazines, including FamilyFun, where she is a contributing editor, Real Simple, and the nonprofit kids’ cooking magazine, ChopChop. She writes about cooking and parenting on her blog at benandbirdy.blogspot.com.

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