Saturday, May 28, 2011

Me and Susan Smith

          We’re headed down the block to Franklin Park in a few minutes for the Asian Festival, a weekend packed with music, dancing, and food: everything my family loves.  So perhaps I’ll have a little morsel to share about all that fun next week.  But in the mean time, here’s a story about a different Franklin Park adventure from a few weeks back.
          See, it all started with the duck pond.
          Duck ponds are very popular in these parts.  I guess because there are no real ponds or lakes or any flowing water other than silty rivers.  I didn’t actually understand the thing about no bodies of water before we moved.  I mean, we looked at Google Earth and the evidence showed there were no natural places to go swimming, but I didn’t believe people could actually live that way.  Or that the natural evolution of landscape could possibly have overlooked the need for a swimming hole.  “The satellite must not know all,” I thought, and I clicked back to Rachel Maddow.
          But it turns out, there are no lakes.  Just duck ponds.  Almost every major park has one.  And they’re not just for ducks.  The Parks and Rec. Department keeps them stocked so folks in the Buckeye Nation can enjoy catch and release fishing as well.  Franklin Park, a block from our apartment, is home to a sizable duck pond big enough to have a pretty big island in the middle accessible by foot bridges and decorated with fancy tall grasses, but certainly not big enough to be an ecologically appropriate home for the hundreds of ducks and geese that doze on it‘s banks.  But why wouldn’t they flock there.  People come all day long with full bags of bread and unopened boxes of Cheerios they just bought down at the Save-A-Lot and feed them to these poor feathered friends.  So the water, and the park, is full of poop.
          And I’m already a little obsessed about poop, so the scene at Franklin Park doesn’t help.  See Moon Boy and Ankle Biter have a host of dietary challenges--no gluten, no soy, no dairy, no egg--and I’m always looking closely at their poop to monitor our success in managing it all.  So the three of us--my two and three year old, and me--walk around Franklin Park investigating the bird scat.  Ankle Biter asking, “Poop! Pick it up?”  Moon Boy answering, “No, it’s yucky!  It will make you sick!”  Me thinking “Oh those poor birds were not meant to live on gluten.”
          So the pond is gross.  And though occasionally I meet a crazy man who tells me he fills his freezer with eighteen inch bass from its waters, most of the fisher people look at all the floaty gunk and throw their catches right back in.  And even though Ankle Biter and Moon Boy follow almost none of my directions, they seem to understand the imperative of my repeated shrieks that they never, ever, ever touch this water.
          But the water isn’t the only thing to be afraid of.  From what I’ve observed, people generally keep an arms length from the geese.  Grown men, toddlers, they approach the flock with their bits of Wonder Bread (made right here in Columbus!) arms outstretched calling “here Goosey, Goosey,” but as soon as the geese start to hustle over, the humans drop the bread and stand back.  They’re pretty aggressive.  They know what we have to offer and have no desire to stretch the feeding process out into a tantalizing Argentine Tango.  They aren’t Argentinian.  They're Canadian.  And they want their Wonder Bread now!  The whole bag thanks and then be on your way.
          I don’t know if my boys are just bold or if its because I don’t let them feed the geese since neither they, nor the fowl, can digest Wonder Bread.  But for whatever reason, my little guys are the only people I’ve seen who show no fear of the winged beasts.  None.  These things are big.  And aggressive.  And as tall as my children.  But Moon Boy and Ankle Biter look those pansies in the eyes … and the chase is on.  The two of them swarm the banks of geese, forcing them up off their snoozing bums and down the bank into the pond with a simultaneous splooshing that makes a magnificent display of feathers and waves.  And feels oh so satisfying to the usually powerless toddler.  My boys stand there at the edge of the pond surveying their work-- never touching the water--laughing and laughing and laughing.
          I don’t normally believe in letting children torture animals but as I see it, these feathered friends have lost any sense of the natural order of things.  They believe packaged edible-substances are their ordained food.  They understand humans as the necessary, if annoying, source for this food.  And they stay in the park all winter long leaving webbed foot prints in the snow.  They could use a little fear of the industrialized world; I let my boys at ‘em without restrain.
          So anyway, a few weeks ago I was trying to get the boys down for a nap via the stroller method.  I ran them all morning, fed them a good lunch, buckled them in the stoller, tucked them under a blanket, and gave them a cup of hot rice milk.  It had worked the last two days.  The chilly air kept them subdued under the fleece, and by the time we were three quarters of the way around the park, they were down.  But the third day it was warmer and there was no impetus to stay tucked in.  Especially not when we got to the bank of napping geese.
          “Get down! Get down! Chase a geese!” Ankle Biter yelled, while Moon Boy tried his hand at unbuckling.
          I tried to satisfy their urges by running at the sleeping geese with the stroller, thinking if I did it a few times they would settle back in for a restful walk.  This is just the kind of ludicrous parenting tactic I use all the time, never achieving the desired goal and thus proving my insanity.  But there I was, desperate for sleeping children, running down the Franklin Park banks, pushing their double-wide stroller at a flock of dozing Canadian Geese, who woke with a thunder of squawking and splooshed in one big mass into the disgusting water below.  Just the kind of activity that lulls small children to sleep.  Right?
          “Do it again!  Do it again!”
          Well, when I got the bottom of the bank the third time down I realized that if people raise their eyebrows when my little boys chase the geese, there might be a bigger social consequence for an adult who does the same while pushing a medium-sized wheeled vehicle.  So I decided to avoid arrest and left the stroller right there, facing down the bank at the edge of the pond.  I unbuckled the boys and let them finish off the job.  Once all the geese had been effectively woken up and splooshed, they moved on to their second favorite Franklin Park game: Hide Under The Bushes.
          It’s a lot of fun really, from the kids’ perspective.  Big full, flowering bushes that reach all the way down to the ground.  When you crawl underneath there’s room enough to burrow and gnaw on little sticks and leaves, unseen by the grown up world.  They’d been playing under there for a few minutes when the rain started.  Fishermen left their lunch-break sport and headed to the parking lot near the bushes to eat sandwiches in the shelter of their cars.  A few others drove in and parked, waiting to see if the storm would move quickly and they could make a couple of casts before heading back to work.  And soon, I was the only person standing there in the rain.
          “It’s raining,” I called into the bush.  “We’re going to have to head home in a minute.”
          “It’s not waining in heyuh!”  Moon Boy called up.  “Come in Mommy.  Come feed me some wooms.”
          It was hard to resist: feeding worms to my little birds under the shelter of a voluptuous flowering bush.  What mom could turn that invitation down?  So I looked around at my audience of lunch eaters in the parking lot, got down on my hands and knees, and crawled under the bush. 
          It was pretty dry under there and, what can I say, I’m good at the worm routine.  I pretended to peck them from the ground and mimed their squiggly bodies in my hand.  Then fed them to my giggling chicks and tickled their bellies as the imaginary worms descended into their digestive tracts.  But the longer we were under there the more I thought about all those people in the parked cars who would have seen me disappear under the bush, never to come out.  I hoped that some of them would remember my boys were under there with me.  I was not just a random adult touring the park one minute and then hiding in the bushes the next.  And then I wondered if they did remember the boys were under the bush, what would they think we were doing?  Or rather, what would they think I was doing?  It was kind of suspicious behavior, you know, ducking unseen under a bush by the duck pond.  An androgynous white person lurking on the banks scooping up little black kids as they came to feed the ducks.  I could see where if they missed our approach together in the stroller, they might get the wrong idea.  Then, as a few more cars dove in, I wasn’t sure whether coming out or staying under would be better.
          But the rain slowed to a sprinkle.  And I convinced my little squirrels (they were squirrels now) to scamper out of the bush and look for acorns to gather.
          I led the way, crawling out of the bush on all fours, and the first thing I saw of the outside world, was a security truck from the Conservatory driving up the walkway on the other side of the duck pond. 
          Odd. I’d never seen a motorized vehicle on that path before.  But there it was.
          I stood up and faced the man who emerged from the truck as he walked across the park toward me.  I panicked a bit.  Wondering how I could prove these were my kids.  How I could explain that instead of walking the block home in the rain we chose to stay and play under the bushes.
          But he smiled kindly as he approached, and then turned his body to point back across to the far end of the duck pond.  “Do you know whose stroller that is?” he asked.
          I followed his point and found, at its end, our stroller: perched on the slope of the bank at the edge of the pond looking as though it had just dumped its precious cargo into the fetid waters below.
          I laughed, a big long laugh of relief.
          “Oh, yes, yes” I managed to get out between snorts.  “That’s our stroller.”
          And as if on cue, out scampered my little chrrrrrring squirrels off to collect food for the winter.
          The security guy was immediately relieved as well.  He had gotten a call about the stroller.  Maybe a couple of calls.  People worried about the fate of its former passengers.  No sign who it might have belonged to.
          Mystery solved, he was quickly on his way.  And I on mine, running after my boys and thinking: Sheesh! If I was going to drown those fuzzy tailed rodents I wouldn’t do it in a duck pond!  It’s just so nasty!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

I couldn't help

          (If you are a sucker for foreshadowing and haven’t read my last piece then go back and have a look before you keep reading.  Because, seriously, I couldn’t have planned this one better if I was … well, if I was planning.)

          We’ve had another cold rainy week here in Buckeye Nation, but this time around I’ve enjoyed it.  See last Thursday and Friday it hit 95 degrees and, being out of my element, I panicked, thinking we were going to be at 90 plus for the next four months.  So a week of chilly rain never lifted my spirits quite as much as this one has.
          But last Thursday, in the heat, I took the kids back to the Audubon after we picked Hot Shot up from school.  The air conditioner in the minivan doesn’t ever work for longer than a couple of months; we wore it out last summer and haven’t had a need to fix it since.  So we were all pretty depleted before we even got to the park and Hot Shot and Moon Boy were griping in the back seat.  But, I remembered,  no afternoon exercise means wakeful children at bed time, and I pressed on.  Sure enough, as soon as I slid open the doors the older two were running down the path and poor little Ankle Biter was scurrying out of his car seat calling, “Wait a me!  Wait a me!”
          When we finally caught up with them, Hot Shot and Moon Boy were sitting on the boardwalk looking at the green stuff floating in the shallow water.
          “Look!” Hot Shot said with excitement, “Lilly Pads!”
          I honestly wasn’t sure if she was kidding or not, because she has plenty of experience with lily pads and these were not lily pads.   Usually I would have no reason to correct that kind of thing.  Her survival does not depend on botanical trivia and one day she will no doubt learn to recognize a lily pad when she sees one.  But today I couldn’t help but say:
          “They’re not lily pads, it’s algae!”
          See, mucky water is one of the things that pushes my buttons.  Toddlers dancing on the dining room table I don’t mind, but water with green floaty things makes me want to hose my kids off for just looking at it.  And there were more than a few large masses of the florescent gooey stuff lurking about.  If it were a duck pond (a core aesthetic of Buckeye Nation) I would make them keep their distance, but since the Audubon water is bigger and not stagnant, I do let them lie on their bellies on the boardwalk and splash with their hands.  Which they proceeded to do for a bit.  Until Hot Shot hopped up and continued across toward the playground.
          She balanced on the low rail as she went, checking a few times to see if I was watching and then pretending to fall.  “Oh!  I scared you didn’t I!” she cackled.
          “No, you didn’t scare me.” I couldn’t help but give her a full dose of mom-knows-best.  “It’s fine with me if you fall in.  It’s not very deep and you know how to swim.”
          I didn’t want to be the bubble burster.  Really.  I don’t take joy in it or anything, but I know how much Hot Shot hates getting wet while clothed.  She won’t even run through a little sprinkler if she’s not in her bathing suit.  She steers clear of the broccoli misters in the grocery store.  So I just wanted her to think ahead a bit about her decisions so I wouldn’t have a wet mess on my hands before we even got to the playground.
          But then Ankle Biter zoomed by and the force of his speed pulled us all away from the water and on to our destination.  We didn’t stay long that day.  It was too hot.  The kids spent most of their time in the sand of the volley ball courts, burying their legs in the cold underneath.  All that rolling about in the sand is a bit of a no-no for black hair, especially when the boys start pouring it over their heads.  But I couldn’t stop them.  They were like little piglets cooling themselves, and at least it wasn’t mud.
          When they had played long enough for me to be satisfied that they would sleep reasonably well, I gave in to their begging and let them start walking back.  They were hungry and thirsty, but mostly hot, hot, hot!  Moon Boy gets a little wilty in extreme temperatures, so I lagged behind with him a bit while Hot Shot and Ankle Bitter ran ahead.  They messed around at the climbing wall for a few minutes and then just as we caught up, they sprinted off together toward the boardwalk.  About half way across Moon Boy noticed that the turtles were out so we stopped to look at them.  Ankle Biter, seeing the objects of our gaze, circled around at top speed and came to a screeching halt beside me so he could have a look too.  Hot Shot continued on slowly balancing again on the rail. 
          Moon Boy’s attention for the turtle’s lasted a while, happy as he was to rest for a moment on my knee,  but Ankle Biter was up and moving again quickly.  “Bye bye turtles!” he called over his shoulder as he tore off down the walkway.  I was looking at the turtles and didn’t watch him go.  I only heard the scream.
           “MOM!”
          It was Hot Shot.
          When I took my gaze off the sunning turtles and moved it in the direction of the scream, I found her there: frozen in mid air, arms outstretched looking for something to grab hold of,  one leg lifted awkwardly sideways, trying to use its weight to bring the rest of the body back into balance, the other foot on tiptoe still technically in contact with the rail, but not in a way that would produce a lasting effect.  I had told her so, hadn’t I?  Still, I couldn’t help but emit an instinctual gasp of motherhood as I searched her face for panic, trauma, tragedy, what would it be?  What would she feel as she hovered there in the air over that mucky water?  Her eyes reached for me like lassos, but, to my great relief, did not flash alarm.  Only out-and-out disbelief.  And rage. 
          That’s when I turned my head to find Ankle Biter, who wore a little disbelief himself.  Not I-can’t-believe-I’m-about-to-fall-in-the-water disbelief so much as I-can’t-believe-I-just-dug-my-own-grave disbelief.  He was suspended in the air as well, but in running position.  Toward me.  Awaaaaaay from Hot Shot.
          Kursploosh!
          And then everything returned to real time.  I ran to Hot Shot and pulled her up out of the water.  Ankle Biter ran to Moon Boy for comfort and protection.  Moon Boy put his arm around Ankle Biter’s back and said, “that loud splash surprised me!”  And Hot Shot screamed, “HE! PUSHED! ME! IN!”
          She was wet up to her neck.  Dripping.  Water gushing out of her shoes with every step.  I knelt down and held her to my body and couldn’t help but feel thankful for the rush of cool.  And funny, now that she was covered in the murky water--now that we both were covered in mucky water-- its harmlessness was immediately evident.  If algae was a concern at that moment, it was way down the bottom of the bag of concerns.
          There was no calming her down.  She was wet, yes, but she was unjustly wet.  That was the kicker.  So she kept up her screams: very loudly.  The Audubon has never been less peaceful. 
          “He did it!  He pushed me in!  I’m gonna get that little creep!  He actually said, ‘Push in the water,’ and then he PUSHED ME IN!”  After a little while, the words stopped but the level of volume persisted as her lungs pushed out a series of rising wails.
          I couldn’t help but count.  “Push in the water.”  Four words.  That’s a pretty good sentence for Ankle Biter.
          So we walked on, she with her head nuzzled into my belly.  Me leaning down to wrap my arms around her.  She screaming and screaming and screaming.  Me picturing her face as she hung out over the water and forcing myself not to laugh.  Not even a little.  That would be the death of us all.
          And then Moon Boy and Ankle Biter followed about thirty steps behind, keeping their solemn distance: holding hands, hanging their heads.
          And I couldn’t help but think of all the times people can’t tell we’re a family:  the good-natured man in line buying stamps; the inquisitive woman in the produce section; the parents at the playground.  They see our mismatched skin and they have to ask our story.  Are we a day care?  A foster family?  Babysitting?  But walking back to the car that sweltering afternoon  I couldn’t help but think our story had never been more clear.  The enraged big sister, dripping murky water and revenge.  The mother, holding her oldest baby, catching the sobs, sucking in her cheeks to prevent even the illusion of a smile.  And then, keeping his distance, the impish little brother, eyes glued to his toes, taking slow deliberate steps.  And finally the middle child, who knows all, comforting the little devil on his gallows walk.  The bikers, the joggers, even the dogs that panted passed, they all looked at us with knowing grins.  We were unmistakably family.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Teaspoon of Calm

          Easily on my Top Five Columbus Places So Far List is the Audubon park down by the Scioto River.  I learned about the park about two months after our arrival here.  It was right around the time Hot Shot (our seven-year-old) became convinced her school was a nightmare, and we, upon spending a little time there with her, could only agree.  She spent her after-school hours writhing in angst about the bus ride, and the whining kids, and the yelling teachers.  “Why did you take me to this place?” she would hurl at us.  She was sure our decision to leave Maine--to leave her best friend, her school, her grandparents, her cousins--was about the most hateful thing we have ever done to her aside from making her brush her teeth every night.
          And maybe it was.
          But then we found the Audubon.
          I understand from local amateur historians that this nature preserve was quite recently the opposite--a police impound lot--and that no one believed it would happen but they actually turned it into a restored wetland with walking trails, a beautiful education facility, funky playground, and impressive climbing wall structure.  All free to the public.  I wouldn’t have believed it myself except that back in October we could see the neighboring lots still piled high with crusty old cars.  Now those lots are empty.  The next phase of the transformation is apparently underway.
         This Spring has been populated by long stints of cold, wet days, punctuated by a few warm sunny afternoons you really have to watch for or you might miss.  I warned Hot Shot (who’s not so hot about abrupt schedule changes) that when such a warm and sunny afternoon comes around, she shouldn’t expect us to go straight home after school.  We’ll be spending some time out in our new world.  Last Wednesday was one of those days, and so we headed from school to the Audubon.
             The first time we went to the Audubon, back in October, I didn’t know there were two parking lots: one up on higher ground, near the education center; the other down in the lowlands, close to the playground.  I only found the first lot, so we parked up there where you can look down as if perched on the great Google Earth shelf in the sky and see the paths through the wetlands down across the boardwalk, over to the climbing wall and playground--all of it back-dropped by the cityscape of downtown Columbus, only a ten-minute walk away.  Hot Shot lead our pack instinctively, running ahead down the hill and out onto the bridge, balancing boldly on the low rail over the shallow water.  She’s not typically prone to self-initiated aerobic exertion, but I think she was inspired by the view: the ability to see her destination, perhaps a half mile away, growing closer with every step.
          But once begun, she and our two tag-along toddlers found their gaze strayed easily from the distant play structures and noticed delight dancing ‘round their little feet.  Grasshoppers that gave us a startle with their abrupt manners, toads to pursue if you kept your eye out, and an expanse of intentionally reconstructed tall grasses and wild flowers which filled the air with such sweetness I had to wonder if someone had found a way to scrub and powder it.
          “Can you smell that?” I asked my little gang.  “It smells so sweet!”
          “It smells like Maine,” said Hot Shot, not even stopping for a second. 
          This little girl whose heart I’d broken, I could not have loved her more.
          Part of me wanted to talk her out of it, to tell her it was not Maine; it was beautiful Ohio.  And this was not salt water, it was fresh, and we could learn to love that too in time.  I wanted to convince her she could enjoy something from here instead of only paying heed because it smelled like there.  But she was right.  It smelled like Maine.
          In fact I kept feeling like we were walking the paths of the Fore River Sanctuary back in Portland.  I used to take Moon Boy and Ankle Biter there.  I’m not actually much of a hiker, though I was raised to be.  Raised in the outdoors, raised to love it, raised to enjoy hiking up it.  I took it for granted until I became a stay-at-home parent and found my introverted self recoiling from the social scene of playgrounds, seeking a home in the woods.  There I was free to feel the breeze and see the brilliance of the leaves.  Free to crouch down and watch my toddling sons delight in a stick or an ant hill or a fern.  Back at the playground my attention was crowded with overheard discussions of restaurants I could never afford.  Here I could do nothing but witness my children’s discoveries.
          I made a plan to park up top forever after.
          And so that’s what I did last Wednesday: parked up top.  Only that day, it was me, and not Hot Shot, who needed the sweet-smelling walk.  A year and a half into fulltime mom-hood I’m loosing my steam, my creativity, my confidence.  I watch my sons, two and three years old, and wonder when I went wrong:  how had my attentive care created two pinching, shoving, biting, out-of-control maniacs?  And the truth is, I’m not interested in researching the answer.  Don’t care to spend the precious moments their bodies are at rest reading up on how I can undo all the damage I caused.  I’ve come to believe that my work for the next year must be more delicate and practical; I must wean myself from stay-at-home momming without feeling like a complete failure.  And it had been a hard pinching, hitting, biting kind of day.
          So I was happy for the expanse.  And the sweet air.  For the teaspoon of calm.
          We had our neighbors along with us as we made way down our path: two boys, nine and ten.  No after school program that day, so they were looking for occupation.  The older boys love to play with my two little ones.  They are younger siblings themselves and seem enamored with the opportunity to tell someone littler what they aren’t supposed to do.  Still they are sweet to my guys, who adore them right back, even though they sometimes express it by shoving and scratching. 
          I worry a bit that the neighbor boys take interest in my boys because they’re appalled at their behavior.  I wonder if they feel obliged to tend to them because they don’t see me responding quickly enough when Ankle Biter sprints ahead across the boardwalk, turning narrow corners at high speed, inches from water that is not alarmingly deep, but would certainly be deep enough.
          The rock climbing structure, as we approached it, looks like something that would rise up out of Zion National Park.  It’s about three stories high and maybe 200 feet in circumference. As we neared it, the older boys are interested in giving it a try.  We’ve typically stayed away from the structure.  It’s intimidating to a little kid I guess, and usually well populated by adults (young adults with no children to keep an eye on), and near enough to the really cool playground that my kids haven’t shown it much interest.  They stop to watch the climbers on their way by, but have never begged to give it a try.
          But last Wednesday the dynamic was a little different with the big boys along for the journey.  They were interested in climbing as we passed and made a few attempts.  They got up on top of one of the fake boulders (taller than my head) and Hot Shot followed suit.  My little Moon Boy, with only a moment of help from me, got up on top as well, and I felt the simplicity of the walk through the tall wet grasses to the funky playground slip away from me forever.  Now there would be this to deal with at one of my favorite places so far in Columbus.  Dangerous would-be rocks placed here for the enjoyment of the adventurous young Buckeye, forever more appealing to my underage climbers.
          But the interest waned and they headed over to the playground soon after.  The big boys chased the little boys--or was it the other way around?--and Hot Shot, a little out of her big sister element, tried a few tricks and then wandered away from the playground.  My heart broke a little for her, fearing that the shift in her brothers’ attention might have left her lonely.  But then I saw she was headed back to the climbing wall.  Not the boulder, but the actual pretend cliff. 
          I was torn for a moment.  Not wanting to take my eyes off my boys, whose clumsiness would certainly be exacerbated by their lack of naps, but wanting to let Hot Shot take a turn on the wall.  And then I remembered one of my other recent additions to the Top Five Favorite Places list: my boys’ Montessori pre-school.  They started there in March, and I’ve been so glad for the reprieve it took me a few weeks to realize how much there was for me to learn, right there.  No research.  No books telling me what I’m doing wrong.  Just a quiet parenting reframe.  And four calm, kind, practiced role models in the form of their teachers.
          I’ve always been passively in favor of the Montessori approach without really knowing anything about it.  The same way I’m in favor of things like windmills and the Mideast Peace Process.  Intuition says they’re probably a good idea.  But now, now that I know a tiny bit more, now that I see those calm, peaceful, organized rooms of toddlers: now I support Montessori with the fervor of a convert.  Like I was crawling across the dessert looking for water, and fell in a river.  Like I was standing on a ledge looking for a reason to live, and found God.  Like I was kneeling on the floor prying Moon Boy’s fingers out of Ankle Biter’s eyes only to find his ungrateful teeth sinking into my calf, and found … Oh, right.  I was.
          So what have I learned?  Too many things to impart when I’m really trying to tell you how much I love the Audubon.  But for one, I’ve learned about “work.”  I’ve learned that when a kid picks up an object that I would previously have called a “toy,” it becomes his work.  And it’s his work until he’s done with it.  Until he’s explored everything about it that he wants to explore.  Until he’s finished the cycle of his thought.  Until he puts it away.  It’s not my job to make him share it just because his big brother can see how much fun he’s having and therefore wants it right away.  It’s not my job to police turn taking.  It’s not my job to worry I’m neglecting him because he’s so easily engaged with an inanimate object.  It is my job to give him space for his work, and to help his big brother find other engaging work, or--wait for it--to engage his big brother with some in-it-to-win-it, no-holds-barred, roll-on-the-floor, one-on-one time with Mom. 
          And when I remember all this, suddenly everyone is happy.  Even me.
          So last Wednesday afternoon I was able to let the big boys chase around the little boys, because they wanted to.  It was joyfully consuming their nine and ten year old brains.  It was their work.  They weren’t finished.  They had not put it away.  And I was able to let Moon Boy and Ankle Biter chase around the big boys, because the happiness dripped out of them like watermelon juice off an elbow.  And if I was close enough to hear the river of their giggles, how neglectful can that really be?
          So I stood in the warmth and looked up at my daughter as she climbed the rock wall.  She didn’t need a boost.  She didn’t need a stream of “good jobs!”  But she could feel the sun and my eyes on her back.  She worked with her body.  Learned a bit about its balance: how keeping it close to the wall gives her more leverage; how she can reach farther, pull harder, than she had thought.  She jumped down a few times.  To rest her muscles.  To get a broader view of the task at hand.  And then she was back at it.  Higher than my head.  Higher than my hands could reach if she had needed them.  Probably higher than a responsible parent should let her kid climb without a harness.  But I was drunk on sun and watching my children at work.
          I hated to end it.  But eventuality our collective hunger and thirst outlasted my provisions.
          So I called Hot Shot down and we all started the walk back.  Hot Shot stopped at the little kiosk, as she always does, to get a Google map of the park, so she can track her sojourn across the wetland, and up the hill to the car. 
          “Look!” she called out to the rest of us.  “Look we’re right here!  Right here where the trail splits off and we start over the bridge!  See?”
          So then Moon Boy and the big boys had to run back to get maps for themselves, while Ankle Biter chased a cardinal.  And they did map work until we got to the part of the boardwalk where you can step down onto a lower level and get closer to the water.  And then they all laid down on their bellies and did look-at-the-floaty-water-bugs work.  And then I couldn’t help but notice there were two turtles sunning themselves on a rock on the opposite side of the walkway, and as soon as I announced their presence, and saw my five charges take their eyes off the bugs and look franticly for the turtles, I realized what I had done.  The turtles weren’t going anywhere.  I could have waited. 
          But I gave myself a pass, and squatted down beside Moon Boy who was now entranced by the turtles.
          “I’m gonna swim out there and look at it,” he told me.
          “You are?”  I asked, looking deep into the warm browns of his enormous, beautiful eyes.
          They smiled back at me, delighting in hyperbole.
           “If I was a turtle I could swim over and look at it,” he amended, eyes dancing along like the sun on the water beside us.
          So we watched the turtles.  And we walked back to the car.  Some at their own pace.  Some holding hands with each other.  In the sunlight, I could see independence as their strength, and not my neglect.  And it left me free to think of other things.  Like how much I love them, and how cool it is that my three-year-old can employ the conditional tense.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

On Being A Nation

          I spent some time on and around the Ohio State University this weekend and it reminded me I haven’t yet addressed the nature of this nation we now live among.  On a day to day basis I’m aware of the Buckeye presence in the way I was aware of the Red Sox back in New England.  Bumper stickers, handmade signs in windows, flags of Buckeye welcome waving over front doors.  Even where we live on the East Side, which doesn’t have any geographic connection to the University, there are Buckeye caf├ęs and laundromats.  There are Buckeye key chains and Buckeye lip balms and Buckeye bottle openers available at most check out counters.  The chicken I buy at Kroger features cartoon fowl wearing Buckeye t-shirts and hats, as if the very animals I am feeding my children once proudly dawned their red and gray in the stands of that great stadium.  “Cluck, Cluck, Go Bucks!”
          Darling Virgo’s weeklong new employee orientation with the City of Columbus featured many Buckeye moments including a half hour video on the finer points of leadership as defined by Buckeye Football coach, Jim Tressel, who was (and is) under investigation by the NCAA for covering up player misconduct.  It’s the kind of thing you can watch as an outsider and chuckle.  Chuckle at yourself for the glimpse of this world you chose to move into.  Chuckle because this kind of tabloid irony is funny when you’re not hotly embroiled in the story.  But later, when the Benefits Specialist looked around the room at her sleepy audience and called out, “O-H!” and all the new employees but Darling Virgo sat up in their chairs with a hearty “I-O!” my dear partner began to understand that as amusing as it is to play the detached sociologist, she’s really just a foreigner in Buckeye Nation.
          My expectation was that I would resist this Nation and its ubiquitous key chains, the same way I try to resist enjoying the Fourth of July fireworks, or the pleasure of getting the day off to celebrate Christopher Columbus.  But the truth is, I’m a sucker for nations.  I remember when my eleventh grade U.S. History teacher defined the word for me, distinguishing for the first time the difference between the geo-political connotation of “country” and the sociological nature of “nation.”  It spoke to me the way I imagine some people feel a response to prayer.  Nation.  Two hundred sixty million people made singular by that which we have in common.  A nation of individualists, a nation of conformists, of over eaters, of couch potatoes.  Whatever.  Even then I resented America for the myth it was founded on, but was hooked on the idea of belonging, of moving in concert, of marching in step.
          There’s so much power in nationhood.  Like Margaret Mead’s oft-quoted handful of people who can make a difference, nations--groups of people united in propose, loyalty, vision, hate--we become something more than ourselves, as if the fact of our unity summons the supernatural.
          I remember this feeling when I was in college at Mount Holyoke.  It was not the Buckeye Nation, for sure.  Picture Seven Sisters, ivy covered stone towers, bells that ring out every quarter hour, rolling greens, iron gates, afternoon tea if you request it in advance.  There was no looming football stadium demanding our allegiance.  The local papers did not reserve their front pages to report our victories and scandals.  But I remember the first time I heard the upperclasswomen banging on the balcony rails in Mary Wooley Hall, their bodies and hoots shaking the walls of that hundred year old building.  You might have thought Billy Joel was on that stage.  Or Ani DiFranco.  Or Madeline Albright.  Nope.  It was the orientation board, or one of the campus a capella groups, or a modern dance performance, or something like that.  Whatever it was, it was the kind of thing that might elicit a shrug or a chuckle from a foreigner in the audience.  But I knew from that moment I was no foreigner: I had found my nation.
          I kept this memory humbly in my pocket as I drove through greater OSU last week and saw street after street after street after street of college housing.  Not college owned housing.  But, you know, college housing.  Three story apartment buildings with patches of brown grass in front.  No landscaping.  No gardens.  Just bicycles chained to sun splintered porches.  Hibachis placed unceremoniously on a rail.  A couch on a lawn.  Sixty thousand students attend school here.  And thousands more teach them.  And still more who make their livings cutting all that hair, feeding all those hollow legs, tattooing the backs of their necks, piercing their tongues.  I drove through those streets and it was all I could do to keep myself from hating or fearing (that great duo of hate and fear) the people who live behind those bunged up doors.  The grills, the beer cans, the wet couches.  They don’t say “Go Bucks!” to me.  Not this foreigner.  They say sexual assault.  They say hate violence.  They say mob.  Because I know that the supernatural force of nationhood doesn’t always stir up peace, love, and progress.  It’s that same swell of power that brings us to build walls, to prove our own membership by turning others out.  It’s what gives us the audacity to require the first black president to prove again and again that he is one of us.  It’s what gives us the permission to grieve our Nation's great loss by circulating pictures of the villain’s bloody head hanging from our proudest symbol of freedom. 
          But I think back to that night in Mary Wooley Hall.  I think of how strongly I felt the presence of that larger being we created together.  How I knew, if we wanted to, we could knock down the walls of the that stone tower.  Or stop Coke from investing in South Africa.  Or change the world by not shaving our legs.  Or by being feminists who did shave our legs.  All these things were in our capacity as a nation.  And there were only 2,000 of us.
          So I cannot begrudge them a nationhood.  Nor can I assume they will use it blindly for ill.  And I remember that last fall, only a few weeks after we landed here, Rachel Maddow played a clip of the Ohio State University marching band performing Script Ohio.  They march out onto the field in crisp precision, spelling the name of their Nation to a red sea of ecstatic fans.  The song ends when the drum major selects a tuba player, prances to the spot where the dot on the “I” should be, marks it with his mace, and then moves out of the way so the tuba player can do what she has waited her entire life to do.  She becomes the dot in the Ohio “I.”  And that’s when I cry.  Every time.