Friday, April 29, 2011

Birth Gender and the DMV

          The President isn’t the only one having birth certificate problems this week.  I finally went to get my Ohio driver’s license and had a little snafu of my own, thank you very much.  See, you know how President O. has a short form and a long form and he finally paraded out the long form so the media could pretend it was “news” and Donald Trump could sigh about how relieved he was to get that over with so we could all move on to real issues?  Well, I have a short form and a shorter form, and I chose to parade my shorter form at the D.M.V. and, well … here’s what happened:
          Moon Boy and Ankle Biter recently started preschool, so, for a few hours on a few mornings, I can charge out into the no-touching, line-waiting world and get a few things done.  And let me tell you when you’ve spent two years with small creatures attached to your legs, waiting in line without them becomes an endorphin producing experience.  I replaced the glasses Ankle Biter threw on the floor one too many times.  And registered the car we drove for a month with the former owner’s license plates.   And filed our taxes on time.  So next on the list was a new license. 
          I thought I’d be able to get my license when we registered the car, but not so.  In the end Darling Virgo and I went together to three different offices to get the car registered and none of them doubled as a license testing center.  Well I was determined to preserve the sanctity of these precious mornings and vowed this would be the last one I’d give to the Department Motor Vehicles.  I made sure I knew exactly what I needed for the license--birth certificate, name change documentation, social security card, and Maine license--and found everything the night before.  I checked it over three times and grabbed my passport (that Golden Key of identification) for back-up just in case.
          I chose my clothes carefully in the days preceding license-getting morning, to be sure my favorite navy blue, hooded sweatshirt was not smeared with almond butter when the day of my DMV photo shoot arrived.  I zipped it up over an old undershirt and made do with my newest pair of jeans which stretched a bit since I got them and already have a big knee-hole from playing “cat and mice” with the boys.  But jeans won’t show up in the picture, right?  No time to take a shower and still get everyone off to school, but I did take a moment to shave off my chin hairs and inspect my hair hair which has grown out a little longer than I prefer and so doesn’t survive a night’s sleep without getting a tall platform look on top.  I decided to throw on a ski cap until I arrived at the DMV (that ought to squelch it a bit) and  grabbed my puffy L.L. Bean vest as we ran out the door.  I was feeling pretty good.
          I dropped the boys at preschool and sped across town to the license test center.  I had a book with me, all my documentation, and I was ready to pass any kind of test they wanted to throw my way.
          I walked in and headed straight to the info desk where I told the man behind the counter what exactly  I meant to accomplish in the next 1.5 hours.  I handed him my documents confidently and watched as he reviewed them.  He got hung up on my birth certificate right away. 
          I should say that as I went through my files the night before I came across two forms of my birth certificate.  The first was on an eight-and-a-half by eleven sheet of paper with that certificate-y design in the background indicating its official and original nature.  The second was a wallet-sized piece of blue card stock, issued and stamped by the clerk of the town where I grew up.  This is the man who coached my bothers and sister in little league and ran town meetings with my dad.  He’s the one who went golfing the first day same-sex couples could marry in Massachusetts, knowing Darling Virgo and I would arrive at his office and have to legalize our union elsewhere.  He gave me that little blue card on my eighteenth birthday when my dad and I walked up to the town hall and got me registered to do my civic duty.  So the night before license-getting morning I grabbed that little card, rather than the big certificate, because it fit neatly in my passport with the other documentation and I could carry them all in my back pocket.
          The info-desk man looked at the little blue card and asked me what it was.
          When I told him it was my birth certificate he pointed out that the only information it displayed were my name at birth, the town I was born in, and the day it all happened.  It didn’t even have my parents’ names on it.  I hadn’t ever noticed that.  But it turned out he didn’t care about my parents names.  Because as he studied it a little more he realized:
          “It doesn’t even say your gender.”
          This bothered him a lot.  He called over his supervisor to have a look.
          “What is this thing?” she asked, picking up the little blue document good ol’ Mr. Gone Golfing had stamped with his own hands, giving me proof of the day I was born.  That’s what a birth certificate’s for, right?  To prove how old you are?  I mean, I understand it has other relevance.  If I were registering for kindergarten it might be expected to prove who my parents are so they can pick me up from school.  But I wasn’t registering for kindergarten.  I was transferring my driver’s license (with eighteen years of safe driving) from one state to another.
          “If it doesn’t say your gender, it’s not a vital record,” she announced.
          I stared at the two of them, thinking what I would do next, and letting them sit for a minute in the swamp of our bureaucracy.  There on the desk was my Maine license proving my gender circa 2008 if they cared to have a look.  And there next to it lay my passport, displaying my 2005 gender.  But what really mattered in the question of whether or not I would be allowed to drive in Ohio, was my gender in 1974. 
          In a flashing second I saw this moment for the beautiful opportunity it was: a chance for trans-ally heroism.  I mean, here I am, swimming in privilege, right?  I was born female and have lived thirty-six years claiming the pronoun “she.”  Never wanted to be a man, never tried it for a day.  Never felt betrayed by my body or resented it for bleeding.  Never winced when asked to check a box next to my gender on College Board exams, or opinion surveys, or at the Department of Motor Vehicles. 
          So the power was mine, really.  I had nothing to lose in a little gender tousle.  Here was my chance to look these fine folks square in their buckeyes and ask what possible relevance my 1974 gender had on my 2011 driver’s license.  I looked down for a moment, took a deep breath to prepare for my rant, and saw what I looked like: a taller, butcher version of  Michael J. Fox in his Back to the Future get-up.  With a ski-cap.
          And then I wondered what possible relevance did my 1974 gender have on my 2011 Ohio driver’s license.  Must my birth gender match my now gender?  Might they actually withhold the hotly desired document until I squandered another of my blessed mornings and returned with the other birth certificate?
          And my raging trans-ally fire?  Well let’s just say it started to sputter there for a minute as I realized something crucial: these people don’t know I’ve lived my entire life claiming the pronoun that matches the genitalia I was born with.  Maybe they’ll be like the woman in the public restroom the other day who offered to take my daughter in with her, because she thought I would be using the men’s room.  Maybe they would be like the kids at my daughter’s school who told her they saw her dad drop her off last week.  Just because I’ve always claimed the “she” pronoun, doesn’t mean that’s what everyone else assigns me.  And now that I think about it, since we moved to the Buckeye Nation I’ve answered to “he” a lot more often than I’m used to.  So looking back at the scoreboard, the only thing we've established here is that we have no proof of my gender as it was officially assigned, by the doctor who was there when my mother pushed me out.
          I was determined to walk out of that building with my license.
          So I sighed and decided to abandon self righteous in favor of annoyed.  I put my elbow up on the counter, leaned my head on my hand and I sighed a little more.  I said I’d never had a problem using that little blue card before.  I reminded them they had my previous license and passport (did you hear me? I said passport!) right there before them.  And I waited.
          It was as if she hadn’t even noticed them there, so taken aback was she by her inability to know whether I was male or female thirty-six years ago.  She looked over my passport and license.  And was I imagining things, or were we all three just a little relieved to have some official government proof of my present day gender?  Because, you know, nobody knows my gender like the government knows my gender.  And (poof!) here I am all swelled up in my non-trans privilege again, because if the government claims I’m a she, and I claim I’m a she, then I must have always been a she, because … well uh ... because I certainly don’t look like a he who’s trying to be a she.  I mean, I don’t know how much an Ohio DMV bureaucrat knows about queer stuff, but if they know anything about anything they know that.  I wouldn’t have on a navy blue ski hat on a fifty degree day if I were really working at looking like a woman.  I wouldn’t have worn torn men’s jeans that sag around my butt like a sixty year old plumber.  I would have cabinets full of make-up which I would use it to hide the stubble on my chin.  I would have a purse in which to carry a normal size birth certificate so I didn’t have to reach around to my manly back pocket and pull out that little blue piece of card stock.  I would have a manicure! 
          It was like a poem, or a proverb, or something Confucius might have thought to say.  Because suddenly, with all that official documentation announcing my current she-ness, my men’s department attire didn’t take away from the point at all, instead it proved I had been a woman always. 
          We all worked this out silently.  Them: looking back and forth between each document.  Me: waiting and sighing, waiting and sighing.  And eventually she told me to hide away that silly little blue card and proceed to the next desk with the passport and Maine license. 
          So I passed the written test, despite my foolish answer that everyone in the car should wear a seatbelt at all times.  (Incorrect!  Don’t waste time buckling your back seat passengers … this is Ohio!)  And then I sat for the picture.  I wondered about the buckeye cop who will one day pull me over because the left headlight on the minivan has been out since October.  I wondered if he would sense any incongruity between my gender and the one stated on my new license, and how he would feel about that.
          Then I filled out the rest of the form.  The identifying characteristics that everyone--the State of Ohio, he, and me--depends on to be sure I am who I say I am.  I had never thought of the me part of this equation before.  I knew these identifiers were important to the cop, but now I saw how someday I might need them to get my back.  To say, “Hey buckeye cop, this here female is Elizabeth Rose-Cohen, and don’t you say otherwise buster.”  I filled in the blanks with renewed solemnity.  Height: 5’11”.  No. 5’9”.  Weight: 160?  No again. 170.  Eye Color: Brown.  Hair Color: Br… 
          Hair color!  I have answered this question many times in my life and always I have begun with the letters “B-R.”  I knew that inevitably the number next to my weight would change.  And that I wouldn’t always be able to claim the height my old basketball coaches used to say I was.  And I’ve been called “he” more times than I’ve been to Canada.  But I never (never!) realized there would come a day when the answer to the question of my hair color might not begin with the letters “B-R.”  Of course it doesn’t say it anywhere that they’re looking for my now hair color.  They could be looking for my birth hair color, right?  Or maybe they’d be interested in my hair color circa 1992.  Or 2004.  Which vintage, I wonder, would be most helpful to the cop as he’s inspecting my overgrown curls, trying to sum up whether or not I’m really the Elizabeth Rose-Cohen I say I am? 
          I considered asking for a mirror to assess the ever more salty situation up there, but instead I asked how long the license is good for.
          Four years.
          Four years, I thought.   I ought to be able to make it four more years.
          And I filled in the rest of the letters: O-W-N.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Next Year in Ohio

          April Vacation officially began at 3:30 on Friday when Hot Shot arrived home with a pocket full of Easter candy and a claim she is “half-Jewish, half-Christian.”  Seems her public school spent some valuable curriculum time celebrating the resurrection.  She was abuzz with news of Easter egg hunts in the public parks.
          “If you let me go I’ll give you all the chocolate,” she bargained.  (My most prized parenting accomplishment thus far is that I trained her to hate chocolate when she was a wee one.)
          I spent a moment wistfully recalling the minor infractions of Christianity in the Portland Public Schools, the little trifles that used to ruffle our feathers.  They were mostly the work of the Foster Grandparent in Hot Shot’s kindergarten class.  She was an old dog and not to be dissuaded, so the teacher let her get away with a reindeer here and a chick chick there.  But those little blips?  They are nothing (nothing!) compared to what we’ve seen this year.  Math, reading, and social studies lessons infiltrated by Christmas.  Mardi Gras hats dancing on kids’ heads as they skip down the steps after school.  And now Easter parties.  I watched Hot Shot fish her jump rope out of the broken laundry basket beside the driveway and I resented the teacher, the school, the whole damn Bible Belt for making my daughter, who loves Judaism, feel like she needs to be half-Christian in order to fit in.  I was all ready to explain to her for the thousandth time that visiting my Catholic family on Christian holidays does not make us Christian, but then it occurred to me she might be citing a different source of her half-Christianess.  So I asked.  And sure enough:
          “My birth family’s Christian.” She stopped jump-roping to answer my question in classic “of course, Mom” posture.
          My birth family.  My Birth Family.  The words flew at me at me across the driveway in a stream of reminders (as if I need reminding) that I’ve chosen to raise my black children in a religion where almost no one looks like them.  A fact that has become magnified since we left Portland where almost no one looked like them, period; not just no one at synagogue.  But that’s why we moved here, right?  So that when they walk down the street they will have black neighbors.  So that when kids come and hang out in our driveway after school, they will be black kids.  So that when reading groups are picked at school, the students who read as well as Hot Shot will be black students.  So that when we go to the grocery store.…  Well, you get the idea.
          But come Sunday morning, where are all those black neighbors and students and grocery shoppers?  Black church, of course.  And where are we?  Hebrew School.  We take that long drive, to another part of town, where the kids who gather in the driveway after school are white, and we bring Hot Shot to Hebrew School.  Which, by the way, she loves.
          She loves it when she’s at Hebrew School, that is.  But when she’s back at school school (which she also loves) nobody really even knows what “Jewish” means.  And it’s not like she’s out of practice at being different.  She’s got white parents after all.  And that’s a little surprising to most kids, but it’s knowable: it’s an objective bit of data that can be seen and incorporated quickly into a seven-year-old’s understanding of reality.  And then she’s got two moms.  Again, not what you’d expect.  But everybody’s got something you wouldn’t expect: Grandma as everyday parent, half-sisters in Chicago, God-brothers on the couch.  But Jewish?  It’s not the kind of thing that jumps out at you like two white moms waiting at the bus stop.  Is it a language?  Is it a country?  Is it more like Methodist or Lutheran? 
          And we knew this.  We knew this way back before we checked the box next to African American on the adoption forms.  We knew there were reasonable arguments against white, Jewish couples adopting black kids.  That they would feel out of place at temple and then out of place among their black peers.  We knew it.  And we did it anyway.
          So here’s my Jewish kid, home from a day of Vacation Bible Camp (oops, I mean public school), jumping rope and begging to hunt for chocolate eggs she doesn’t even like.
          We have Shabbat dinner together--it’s Moon Boy’s turn to light the candles--and that’s Friday.
          Saturday morning my partner, Darling Virgo, took Hot Shot and Moon Boy to the airport to pick up a beloved Portland friend for a weekend visit.  Ankle Biter and I made a grocery run so we could feed our friend something other than limp celery.  I looked down the holiday isle and delighted at the ample shelves of “Passover items” alongside the florescent peeps.  Bible Belt or not, we had done good work, redeemed ourselves at least a little.  I mean: Columbus Ohio.  What two-white-mom, three-black-kid, mostly-Jewish, partly-vegetarian, completely-Democratic family (after years of research) would choose Columbus, Ohio?  But seriously, our grocery store--by which I mean the closest and most convenient grocery store to our home--sits on the boarder between our neighborhood (black with pockets of gay, white homesteaders) and Bexley (a white, 50-percent-Jewish town).  What I mean to say is, my grocery store carries Havdallah candles and chitlins; and I’m willing to bet no grocery store in Portland carries either.
          So really, if we are going to fit in anywhere on the planet, it’s right here at this Kroger: aisle 14.
          But I didn’t browse the ample Passover items.  I thought about it.  And I thought I probably should.  Because I was pretty sure Passover was coming up sometime in the middle of the week.  But company was coming first.  In twenty minutes.  And that was all my grocery-shopping brain could handle.
          So we spent a lovely weekend with our guest.  We introduced her to our favorite place in Columbus: the downtown library.  We took our first trip to the zoo.  (The Zoo?!  More on that in future posts I’m sure.)  And we kept her up talking every night because we are just that starved for face to face contact with established friends.  Then, early Monday morning, DV quietly took our guest back to the airport, went off to work herself, and I awoke alone with three kids, looking at the calendar, realizing that Passover began at sundown.  Tonight.
          I had a hunch DV was aware of this little secret; it is her holiday after all.  And for sure she was avoiding it, because, well, because we are in Ohio.  Not Portland.  Not Boston.  Because we are not with family.  Because her Bubbie is in the hospital and she is not at her side, massaging those puffy old feet and tactfully interrogating the physicians.  Because she was feeling alone.  Of course.
          I wondered for a minute at how casually I put off my Jewish Home Beautiful duties this time around.  As if the public school system might help me along a little, offer a few Passover-infused math lessons maybe, or conjure up a handful of unleavened crafts to decorate our dining room and get us all in the mood.  Who did I think was going to create this holiday for my children?  Who was going to tell them the story of their resilience, their liberation, their self-determination?  There were no grandparents across town.  No community of friends with whom we had gathered for family Shabbats all these years.  It was our job alone.
          But by that point it seemed a lot to pull off with only two grown-up hands already pretty busy keeping Moon Boy from doing serious damage to Ankle Biter and finding first-day-of-vacation projects to engage the already-bored Ms Hot Shot.
          I thought I could manage some charost.  That was a start.
          I called DV and asked her to pick up some pecans (the boys can’t eat walnuts).  And then I called again a few minutes later for grape juice.  And we’re almost out of cinnamon.  I thought we’d skip the matzoh ball soup because we only just finished the leftovers from an oddly timed pot we made last week.  But we could probably use some matzoh meal.  And eggs. 
          With great effort I got Moon Boy down for a nap around 1:00 and settled in on the back steps to read a library book to Hot Shot and Ankle Biter.  On the outside I was reading a library book.  My lips formed the words.  I even read with expression.  And my fingers turned the pages.  But in my mind I was flipping through our Haggadah, making a list of things we’d need on the Passover table in addition to the meal.  Pulling off an actual seder seemed increasingly unlikely as my mental list grew.  That’s when Star Gazer rounded the corner into our driveway, looking for fun.  Star Gazer is ten years old and our most frequent visitor.  A fifth grader at Hot Shot’s school and nearby neighbor, she spends many afternoons at our art table and many evenings at our dinner table.  She’s an eager helper and anthropologist: happy to pass out the napkins and quick to learn the Havdallah blessings. 
          As soon as I saw her face, I knew we could do it.
          By the time DV got home from aisle 14 with fresh parsley, coconut for macaroons, and enough chutzpah to rustle up another round of matzoh balls, Star Gazer and Hot Shot were already busy at the table chopping apples.  Bolstered by Star Gazer’s genuine interest, Hot Shot let go of her annoyance that no one even knows what part of speech “Jewish” is, and let herself enjoy the preparations alongside her friend.
          “I never had no charoset before,” Star Gazer confessed.
          “Don’t worry,” said Hot Shot.  “You’ll love it.”
          She told her about the Haggadahs I made a few years ago and how there’s room for kids to draw pictures if they get bored.
          We found them in the drawer and made sure there were enough that weren’t already drawn in. They finished the apples and pecans and mixed in the grape juice and cinnamon.  Then while I was putting Ankle Biter to bed (we thought a one-toddler Seder would be enough this time around) they moved on to the macaroons.
          By the time Ankle Biter was asleep and I re-emerged, the table was set, DV had cut a shank bone from construction paper, eggs were boiled and shelled, matzoh balls were plumping in the broth, and the girls, already dressed in their Christmas Concert finest, were helping Moon Boy into his fancies.  In a moment of unprecedented generosity, Hot Shot even gave him five of the dozen jangley bracelets recently handed down (via the US Postal Service no less) from a beloved older friend in California.  The room sounded as if Miriam was already shaking her timbrel on the shores of freedom.
          So we did it.  And Hot Shot was able to read loud and clear this year, as if she were one of the elders ‘round the table.  And we all helped tell the story.  And when we got to each song--some of them in Hebrew, some of them from the front row of the march across the bridge in Selma--my kids knew most of the words.  And then we got to the part where we hold up the orange and say “this doesn’t belong on a seder plate!  But here it is, reminding us to include people we might sometimes think don’t belong at our table.”  And Star Gazer said: That’s me!
          Of course Moon Boy was under the table by the time we served the meal he was too over-stimulated to eat, and Star Gazer found the afikomen a little too quickly for Hot Shot’s salty-eyed taste.  But when DV and Hot Shot walked our friend home, and when I followed Moon Boy up the stairs to his room with the glowing planets, we were all a little more free. 
          And so it will be again: Next year in Jerusalem.  Next year in peace.  Next year in Ohio.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Cause for Alarm

          We always knew we would leave Portland, Maine at some point, though we weren’t sure when or where to.  And while we didn’t want our children living in the ambiguity of an always-impending but never-tomorrow move to who-knows-where, we didn’t want them hooking their toes too firmly in the ground either.  “Do you think you’d ever enjoy living in a city with a subway?” I would ask nonchalantly. Or, “what do you suppose it’s like to live far away from the ocean?”  I wasn’t seeking to collect their opinions so much as create opinions for them, mold their little minds with the concept that the who of home is constant, but the where is always in flux.  
          Our daughter (I’ll call her “Hot Shot”) is riddled with anxiety about normal, everyday occurrences like getting dressed in the morning, and thus responded to my mind-molding campaign by developing a running list of places we can never move on account of the natural disasters that await us there.  No California, too many earthquakes.  Nothing on the Southeast seaboard because of those darn hurricanes.  And no Kansas: tornados. 
          Her thing about Kansas and tornados was really big.  She’s never seen The Wizard of Oz but knows the story well enough from picture books that it comes up a lot.  Statements like, “you can probably tell people are from Kansas because they’re all banged up,” inserted themselves into routine family conversations often enough that I eventually promised her I would never, ever, under any circumstances, make her live in Kansas.  So she didn’t have to worry about tornados any more.
          Now if Hot Shot is an alarmist, I am her opposite.  Well I guess that’s not entirely true; there are things I get alarmed about.  In fact just this week I was hands and knees on the floor crying over spilled milk.  And then I was out of my mind lecturing the kids for leaving the water running, followed by lots of huffing about the same children helping themselves to a tour of the fridge without my permission. These are the horrors that ring my bell.  But the big things?  The things that are actually horrific but only show themselves every decade or so, I can’t find the energy for proactive alarm on their behalf.  Terrorist attacks, ice storms, even global warming (I hate to admit) do not mess with my confidence that I will live an uninterrupted life.
          So about a week after arriving in Columbus last summer, we heard our first tornado sirens.  They ring throughout the city and sound a lot like Hot Shot when someone says a forbidden word­­–“aaaaaaaawwwww, he said the H-wooooooooorrrrrrrrrrd,” her intonation, volume, and intensity rise together until my eardrums call for mercy.  I didn’t know them to be tornado sirens, which is to say, no one told me to expect such a thing or that they would sound like an auditorium full of tattling first-graders, but they were unmistakable.  Because even though I know I am surrounded by buildings and asphalt for miles, the sound of the sirens was so dramatic to my virgin ear, that I felt as though I was looking out the window onto wide open prairie. 
          Hot Shot asked me what the sound was.  I told her I thought it was a fire whistle, like they have in the sleepy town where I grew up in the woods of Massachusetts.  She’s familiar with this whistle from our stays at my parents’.  It sounds like a series of loud hiccups and each street in the town is coded with a different number of hiccups so the volunteer fire fighters can count them, drop their forks, and go directly to the scene of the fire.  I told her this because I knew she would believe me and that she wouldn’t immediately understand such a system was unsuitable for a city of  800,000.  I also knew there wasn’t a need for any of us to be alarmed.  Because it was not actually a wide-open prairie I saw, it was a city block lined with three-story brick buildings and elderly trees.  They were not banged up like those unfortunate folks from Kansas.  They were standing and had been doing so for years.  They were all the proof I needed that tornados are a relative fiction and if indeed they do pass this way often, they must not do much harm.
          We found out soon after, the sirens are triggered by a certain level of air pressure or something equally objective that’s only one of the many factors which might swirl together into the makings of a tornado.  We eventually told Hot Shot the truth about the sirens.  By then she’d heard them enough without finding herself in Munchkin Land, that she understood, as I did, their true boy-who-cried-wolf nature.
          So by now, eight months into our time in tornado territory, we’re all feeling pretty old hat about tornados.  In fact, we aren’t even thinking about tornados at all.  Last week, for example, when the boys and I dropped off Hot Shot at school with her sleeping bag and three days worth of Claritin and watched her head off on the bus for the first-grade camping trip, tornados were the farthest thing from my mind.  Nope, I wasn’t thinking about tornados; I was thinking how I’d expected to feel a deep sadness at this moment and how instead I felt a hint of relief.  I was thinking how for the next three days I didn’t have to plan naptime around Hot Shot’s pick-up schedule.  And I didn’t have to worry about giving her enough mom-time after school while cooking supper with two boys climbing up my legs.  And how there would only be two kids to put to bed tonight.  And tomorrow night!  And then as it suddenly started to rain and I saw the pickup truck leaving with all the kids’ gear in the back, I was thinking how I wished I had put Hot Shot’s pillow in a plastic bag big enough to close more tightly.  And then the boys were asking to go to the library and I was thinking about what time story hour was.  I wasn’t even remotely thinking about tornados.
          So we got to the library and I hurried the boys into the bathroom just inside the doors from the parking garage.  Our three-year-old (I’ll call him “Moon Boy”) and two-year-old (“Ankle Biter” for now, though I hope he earns a new name soon) are potty training.  Since wiping up puddles of pee is one of the everyday annoyances that does cause me alarm, we were being proactive.  There were two stalls in the bathroom and the boys switched back and forth between them at least five times before each decided he was sure he had the right one.  They worked at getting their pants and underwear down to their ankles, and then at getting their cute little bums up onto those awkward public restroom toilet seats.  Once done, they each set to work unrolling the toilet paper, yard after yard, even though neither required wiping.  I marveled at my calm as I witnessed this act, which would typically set my sirens a-wailing.  And then, when they made their way out to the wonder of the automatic paper-towel dispenser, I decided to indulge in something I rarely do: sit down on a public restroom toilet.  I pretty much don’t go anywhere without Moon Boy and Ankle Biter alternately clinging to my thighs and running out of sight, neither of which makes it very easy to get comfortable on a germy public toilet.  But that morning, with only two sets of needs to meet for the next three days, I dropped my pants and sat.  I even closed the stall and locked the door, content that I could tell the boys were still nearby as long as the R2-D2 paper-towel dispenser continued to whir.
          And for a minute, behind that locked door, I was alone.  No one clung to, or hung from, or bit at any part of my body.  I might have been sitting in the middle of a lazy, green pasture.
          Then the announcement came over the loudspeaker.  “The National Weather Service has declared a tornado warning for all of Franklin County.  Please follow library staff to safety.” 
          I considered the announcement with some annoyance, the jeans gathered around my ankles as they were, and the boys so readily entertained by the global-warming paper towels.  I sat there for a moment, head in hands, elbows digging into thighs, and I wondered at my bad luck. 
          Then I remembered Hot Shot, now on a school bus, headed on a two-hour drive through the open prairie.  She may as well have been in a covered wagon.
          When the announcement came again I listened more intently to the instructions and noted that while I’ve heard National Weather Service warnings many times, I’ve never been directed to follow library staff to safety.  I wondered what it might entail and if the approaching tornado was dangerous enough that we would be lead down a secret stairway into the basement where they keep all the discarded books Ankle Biter chewed the corners off.  And I wondered, with rising alarm, what a storm that required us to go to the basement of the downtown library would do to a pack of first-graders on the bus in the middle of the prairie. 
          That’s exactly the kind of thing you do hear about: school busses full of children, rolled across a field by a bully tornado.  It’s the kind of thing you just have to ignore day to day otherwise, how could you put your kid on a bus every morning?  But some moments call for alarm.  Like when you’ve just said goodbye to your daughter, sent her off to a location you’ve never seen, with people you don’t know, for longer than she’s ever been out of your reach, and you don’t even feel a little bit sad.
          In my foreigner stupor, I hadn’t paid attention to what roads they were taking, what town they were headed to, not even what direction it was in.  I sat there listening to the paper-towel dispenser wondering how I was going to wrap my arms around that bus.
          It was the first knock on the door that called me into action.
          “Security.”  It was a man’s voice.  “Anybody in there?  There’s a tornado warning.”
          “We’ll be right out,” I called, jumping up and zipping my jeans into their public position.  “I’m getting my kids diapered,” I lied as I gathered the three changes of underwear and pants Moon Boy had emptied on the floor scavenging for snacks.  If I could just get into the library and online and I could figure out where they were going at least.  And where the storm was.  Maybe I should call the school.  Surely they would track this sort of thing, right?  Or maybe they would be too busy herding all the rest of the kids to the basement corridors and hollering at them to duck and cover.  But Ankle Biter had removed both shoes and one sock, so I was working on getting those back in place when the second knock came.
          “Anybody here?”  It was a woman this time and she popped her head in to see me squatting on the floor over Ankle Biter’s feet while Moon Boy climbed on my back.  She could tell we weren’t going anywhere anytime soon and said, “actually, you know, you can just stay here.  The bathroom’s a safe spot. I’ll let you know when the drill’s done.”
          Okay, so confined to the bathroom I won’t be checking the internet in a hurry.  I better call the school.  I pictured little Hot Shot: already nervous about the great unknown of camp, now tumbling in a mash of children, back packs, bubble gum.  I hoped someone would be on the phones.  I got the last shoe on, took out my cell, and then realized what the woman had said: drill.
          I stopped, phone in hand.  She said “drill.”
          And then it was over as quickly as it had started.  My alarm, which I’d normally find so counterproductive, had become proof of my devotion to our eldest child, and then vanished, leaving only a quiet emptiness in its place.  So I sat on the floor there for a while with the boys.  Picking up the paper towels.  Then I let them climb on the counter and use as much soap as they wanted from the dispensers to make sinks full of bubbles.  Then we were back on the floor wiping up all the water we spilled.  And then it occurred to me she might forget about us.  Not Hot Shot, the security guard.  That we could probably spend the morning in that bathroom, safely tucked away from a tornado that didn’t exist, and no one would know the difference.  
          So I gathered all our stuff again, took inventory of socks and shoes.  And off we went to join all the natives for story time.

Friday, April 1, 2011

If I planned a move to Amsterdam

          If I planned a move to Amsterdam, I would buy a dictionary.  If I planned a move to Beijing, or Sofia, or Tehran, I would remember there might be a different alphabet and buy some kind of new-fangled audio dictionary instead.  If I planned a move to Moscow, I would expect to be a foreigner.  I would know: you won’t be able to read the signs, you'll look different than everyone else, bring along some extra cash for bribes.  If I moved to Nairobi, I would ask for help.  I would take a class.  I would be extra careful crossing streets, knowing that having turned the volume down on all that Swahili I'd likely get run over by a bus. 
          But I planned a move to Columbus.
          Oh sure, people told me it was the Bible belt, but it was on all the best-secretly-gay-cities lists.  So how different could it be?  And it's a swing state: think of it!  Think how my vote would count!  How the primary candidates will come running.  How party nominees will want to know exactly what I'm looking for in a president.  How they will try to win my vote, steal my vote, barricade the streets so I won’t be able to cast my vote.  That's how important my vote will be. 
          Nobody even cared about my vote in Portland, Maine. It would be a charmed, new life. 
          And sure enough: the signs were in English.  I could read my accordion-fold map just fine.  We found an apartment, a school for our daughter.  And when I listened very carefully to the woman on the phone I could eventually understand her enough to know where to meet the bus, and what time it would come.  I walked my sons in circles around the neighborhood a few times and we found ourselves a couple of playgrounds.  My breadwinner learned the local dialect fairly quickly (they say “tennis shoes” when they mean "sneakers"), got herself a job, and got me some bread.  I needed no money for brides.  No bus ran me down.
          But then six months later, there I was standing outside the locked doors of an empty church with my family and two quiches, looking for the potluck dinner and Havdallah service we expected to await us.  This was the day, this was the time, this was the church where our little Jewish congregation holds its gatherings.  And here we were: alone in the middle of Buckeye Nation.
          I had to ask myself, Why?
          These kinds of misunderstandings happen, right?  It's not such a big deal.  Turns out they were gathering at a different place.  Because it wasn’t just a Havdallah service.  It was that big Israeli dancing event they've been getting ready for.  The one they sent all the emails about.  Hadn't we gotten the emails?
          We had.  
          But see, I moved to Columbus.  I didn't move to Nairobi, or Amsterdam, or Tehran.  So I didn't plan for this.  I didn't expect that every time I opened an email it would reveal something else I didn't know: some suburb I'd never heard of, some park I'd have to find directions to, some Representative whose name I didn't recognize whom I should call and ask not to vote for some bill I didn't totally understand.  I didn't foresee that elections would come and there would be too much to learn, too many records to track down, too many closets to inspect, and there I would be in the booth, voting blind: check, check, check down the Democratic guide.  I didn't realize I wouldn't know where to find the no-sugar-added apple sauce in the grocery, or where to go swimming, or which kinds of plastic I could recycle.  And I forgot that while I was trying to figure it all out, my boys would tug at my legs asking for a snack, for a book, for a hug.  And then it would be time to meet the school bus.  And then it would be time to make supper.  And then I would stop reading email entirely, because it may as well have been in Cantonese.
          Thank God the bus drivers have been careful.