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Posts from the ‘When I was your age…’ Category

The spoiled child: how do you surprise younger siblings?

Spoiler alert! Six-year-olds love Star Wars. Particularly in Lego format. I was that age myself when The Empire Strikes Back came out. I remember the tie-in Happy Meal I received.  And I remember being lined up in a school hallway with my first-grade class, and the hot topic was Darth Vader, I think, and his relationship to uh, somebody, I won’t spoil it for you in case you are one of the few people in the world who hasn’t seen the movie.

Oh wait a second, I just Wikipedia’d the release date for The Empire Strikes Back. Revision: the movie I remember being discussed in the hallway, actually, wasn’t The Empire Strikes Back, it was Raiders of the Lost Ark. [That's right, I remember now: everyone just called it "Raiders" to sound cool, and no one cared to discuss the theatrical re-release of Cinderella I had seen...right right.] In any case, it was some adventure thing I didn’t care about and didn’t see. It’s Harrison Ford in some macho role or other. It’s all the same to me. The Happy Meal was definitely TM George Lucas, though.

Rats, that would have been a great lead-in to this post. But I digress. Back to the point: it occurs to me, as I look around my house, where I live with a six-year-old boy, and a three-year-old boy, and their Star Wars-loving father, Lucas detritus is everywhere. There are Lego Star Wars figurines strewn about the floor in every room, some with heads, some not; the series DVDs are never far from the TV set. When we play in the backyard, we don’t need swings, or even a ball; all that’s required is a few large sticks that become lightsavers (“They’re lightsabres! Even I know that,” I keep telling them). Roles are assigned, and there’s a battle royale; the boys alternate being Luke Skywalker and Hans (sorry – Han!) Solo, and I am usually assigned C3PO, or Princess Leia, and halfheartedly swing my sabre while trying to make the point that Princess Leia doesn’t need saving; she’s fighting bad guys too.

Even when the six-year-old is at school discussing the minutiae of the planet Hoth with his compadres, and we’re at play on our own, the three-year-old still wants to pick up some sticks and fight bad guys in space. He still wants to be Luke Skywalker through most of his day.

When my older son was that age, he was more interested in The Wiggles: things that were cozy and sweet.  His father didn’t introduce Star Wars to him until he was well over the age of four (he waited as long as he could stand). Things are different this time around; with an older brother around to worship and emulate, the little one is growing up so fast, all consumed with the epic battle for good over evil, so he can stay in step with his idol.

Those “few people in the world” I mentioned earlier, who have not seen the Star Wars franchise? Aside from grown-ups who don’t care for space games, who else can those people be, but little brothers and sisters? And how do we stop them from being exposed to secrets they are not ready to learn yet? Like the fact that you-know-who is you-know-who’s father?

As much as I like to make fun of my family for their adulation of George Lucas, the Star Wars films (and no, I don’t mean the ones with Hayden Christiansen, I know I know) are absolute classics, and it is one of the wonders of childhood to watch them and revel in their big moments. It’s almost like Christmas morning, the look of surprise on the face of a kid when the moment of truth comes in The Empire Strike Back; it’s like unwrapping an enormous gift. But it can only happen once.

At three, my little one is not ready for that revelation. It’s one thing to play at using the Force in the backyard, but he is simply too little to watch the films, where the violence is of a much more intense variety that a backyard twig fight. But when the background noise of his daily life with big brother is all Star Wars, all the time, how do we make sure that he will stay unspoiled, so that he can enjoy that moment to its fullest, gasp-inducing extent when he is ready for it?

This conundrum goes beyond Star Wars as well. My six-year-old’s teeth are falling out at an alarming pace and I, as Tooth Fairy, like to leave him a surprise under his pillow from time to time instead of cold, impersonal cash. But the three -year-old, as my personal shopping assistant, is very astute, and saw the special electric toothbrush I bought for his brother and tried to hide at the bottom of the cart, behind boring things like toilet paper and vegetables.  Did he make the connection the following morning when the same toothbrush appeared? If he did, he still doesn’t have the words to express it. But someday, perhaps sooner than he should, he might just put it all together.

And how will he believe in Santa, when his brother no longer believes? And the Easter Bunny? Not to mention every other book or movie his brother will read or see ahead of him. It’s powerful ammunition to have, this information, and I hope it is a long time before big brother realizes that he can wield it.

In the throes of busy days, I can’t police every moment. I can keep him from watching Star Wars on TV, but I can’t ensure that the boys’ playacting is spoiler-free. For now, I can only rely on the fact that three is still very young.  As incredible as his capacity to remember every kind of detail is, his ability to forget is almost as strong. He was, as I am sure he has forgotten, a baby not too long ago. But then again, they change and grow faster than my parenting can keep pace with, so that might not be true for very much longer.

Tomorrow morning, the Tooth Fairy will likely have been here. And that (spoiler alert!) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle sticker book might look awfully familiar to a little certain someone. Maybe I will just stick to cash.

Cringing and typing: the blogger at age 15

Facebook. How you dredge up the past. I mean, this is pretty harmless, but it’s still dredging. A few months ago, a friend from a camp I attended in the summer of 1991 contacted me on Facebook, and sent along a pdf of a two-page essay I wrote when I was 15. I guess I was pretty proud of this essay if I was handing out to camp friends. Jesus.

English: Barnard College, New York City

Barnard College, New York City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was a camp for young suburbanites to experience the splendor of the big city: a month living in a dorm and taking classes at Barnard College, in New York. It was paradise for the slightly awkward, slightly arty teen. We traipsed up and down Broadway like we, as many other fresh, eager-types before us, owned it. We dicked around campus, and museums. We were self-proclaimed masters of the M4 bus. We ordered Chinese takeout to our rooms like big shots, stayed up late, socialized on uncomfortable common room furniture, and amused ourselves with an endless series of inside jokes.  They must have been OK jokes, though; several of the people I lived with at 49 Claremont Avenue are still my good friends. And I mean in the real world, beyond Facebook. PCP ’91!

We bought ten-packs of subway tokens in tiny plastic bags and went way downtown on the 1/9 to Greenwich Village, which is still my favorite place on earth. Sometimes we messed up and got on the express and just hung out at Chambers Street, whatever. Everything was exciting; as much fun as we had going to Shakespeare in the Park and a Violent Femmes concert at the Beacon Theatre, we had roaming the aisles at Love’s Pharmacy. We were old enough to shop for our own shampoo, old enough to decide when to go eat at Tom’s Diner, when to go the dining hall, and when to sleep through class.

I wrote the essay in question in high school, in 1990, for a writing contest (which I won, that’s right!). My friend found it at his mother’s house as she was clearing out old things.  And if I have the stomach for it, one day I’ll go through my parents things, and find the rest of the things I wrote at this brash and hopeful time, which I think even includes poetry inspired by Sylvia Plath (yikes), and my college essay, in which I described my love for the mysteries of New York, and why I wanted to go back, across the street from Barnard, to Columbia. Which I did.

As punishment to myself, I will retype the entire essay, resisting to the urge to correct anything or insert commentary on poor turns of phrase, or missed opportunities for jokes, and let it be. I am not sure why anyone would want to read it, although I still think it’s kind of funny, but if a blog ends up being nothing but a chronicle of one’s self, to be read at a future date, and wonder why, then this needs to form a part.

The Origin of Soul: The Story of Creation

 

In the beginning, there was James Brown.

That’s all there was. No glinting silver moon, no life sustaining sun. The stars were not the watchful eyes of heaven, and no beavers built their dams on the nonexistent churning blue streams. No pine trees shaded the eyes of prancing human beings. There was no life, no universe.

No universe, that is, until that something, that supreme, superior being, that godfather of all creatures, James Brown, felt good. He felt so good, so powerful, just as he knew that he would, that he was sparked with the divine inspiration to create the Earth out of soul, a sharp scream, and brown polyester.

The Earth, soul kitchen, sea of raving fans soon to be, and James Brown’s dance floor. A quick dance step, a quiver of his hips, and there was his glowing disco ball, pure and simple, ready for him to adulterate. What magic, what wonder! That was the first day.

On the first night, Mr. James Brown threw a party, a bash for the masses of nothingness. To decorate and shine proudly upon his new world like his white teeth, he created the sun, the moon, and a myriad of twinkling stars. Hallelujah!

On the second day, James Brown felt nice. So, hence appeared an abundance of humans, sugar, and spice. There were plenty of women, and no jive. The party continued, as it always will, and this time the decorations were the forests primeval, and the oceans blue and teal. Mr. Brown wore his earth brown suit to match his Eden.

On the third day, James Brown did another nifty little jig and created the party animals to follow him and worship him like no other. The panthers, cheetahs, and cockatoos loved their Creator with all their dancing hearts.

And the earth was complete! Glory be, James Brown created Grooveday (now called Sunday, as the term “groovy” is passe), to rest in his yacht in the gleaming Pacific and recover from hangovers. He had now earned the much deserved title of “The Hardest Working Man in Creation.” So be it!

But, as nothing is perfect except the master himself, evil–sinning, blade-sharp evil–began to spawn and grow within the Godfather’s own sideburns. Wars wreaked havoc across the earth, and the globe, once crystal blue, was now tinged with black, stinging crime.

English: James Brown, February 1973, Musikhall...

February 1973, Musikhalle, Hamburg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Why, oh why,” the people wanted to know, “did James, the Man, thrust this upon us?”

As they did not want to take responsibility for their own actions, James Brown’s sons and daughters sent him to the jail cell to purge all the world’s sins. Heartbroken and stained by his own blood, The Almighty Brown sent M.C. Hammer, musician in disguise, to rule in his place.

“That will show them!” he thought, as his feet were bound and halted from grooving. “The fools know not what they do!”

And lo, show them it did. During the years our James, our Creator, was sadly incarcerated, the world was driven to tears by the horrid sounds of the Hammer. Finally, the people broke through the clogged-up tunnel, saw the light, and praise Soul! James Brown pounded the pavement once again! He forgave everybody.

And the world, and James Brown, and all the party animals in the forest, felt good once again. Amen! Hallelujah!

The legend of Zelda and Zoe

Zelda with her new boss, Zoe.

Zelda with her new boss, Zoe. Note: not my mother pictured, but our dear aunt Pom Pom.

It makes me sad to think of how most of my daily childhood treasures have probably ended up in a trash heap somewhere. Well, I’m not the only sad one; think of the Toy Story franchise. But it’s sad nonetheless. Whatever happened, for instance, to my Communist Barbie? Someone had to play Miss U.S.S.R. in our makeshift Miss Universe pageants in the basement playroom. So I cut off her matted blonde hair into a spiky do, and Barbie became a breadline-hardened Brigitte Nielsen that always came second to Miss U.S.A. I can pretend she’s keeping other similarly-shorn, well-loved Barbies, Kens, and Skippers company in a cozy daycare somewhere, but, more likely, no claw ever could save her from the fires that awaited.

As you can tell by my lack of respect for Barbie’s golden locks, I didn’t have the most girly of girlhoods. I slept in a yellow bedroom, and wore red and gold Danskin playsets to nursery school, or plaid kilts. My mother didn’t care much for pink, or princesses, which is fair enough. She also wasn’t that sentimental about things, nor did she ever imagine that these toys that she eventually tossed had hearts and feelings of their own. A wise lesson for a harsh world. I tried to take that lesson on, but I still can’t ever throw out a piece of paper with my mother’s handwriting on it, no matter how many school worksheets of mine would have been recycled, if recycling had been a thing when I was in school.

Now, as I fill acid-free boxes upon boxes with my son’s kindergarten scribbles, I realize I have to relegate some to the great recycling bin in the sky, if I don’t want to appear on an episode of Hoarders. And I understand my mother’s drive to declutter; I can hardly see clear to the end of a day if I need to wade past piles of kid stuff to get there.

So the best drawings get kept, and the coloring sheets and letter practice go. I wonder which of my boys’ possessions will still be here when we are all older? I have a few ideas (a scruffy teddy bear, a huge bin of Legos no one will ever make sense of again, a tattered copy of Captain Underpants).

Never to be recycled.

Never to be recycled.

My two boys like to get fawning attention by kissing the odd baby doll, and cruise each other toward bruisin’s in a doll stroller I bought them, but they are really not interested in inheriting mine. Though Communist Barbie got tossed just as the Berlin Wall came down, my childhood baby doll Zelda is still around, and she’s found a new home: with my sister’s daughter, one-year-old Zoe. It was meant to be! The two Z’s, Zelda and Zoe, zestily zipping together to Zanzibar, or Zagreb, or somewhere. New Zealand.

My parents gave me Zelda when I was a baby. She wasn’t fluffy, or pink: she had a hard plastic head and arms, yellow hay-like hair, and a red and white dress. And I schlepped her around the house dutifully like many a baby would. And now, Zoe sweetly does the same. Zoe and Zelda.

IMG_7229

I asked my mother why she named my doll Zelda. Surely that name wasn’t on the box. I though maybe because she wasn’t the daintiest of baby dolls, or looked slightly witch-like, that the name fit. It was too soon to name her after The Legend of Zelda, the videogame, so that wasn’t it.

“We decided that we were going to start at the end of the alphabet,” my mom said. “So I thought of Zelda. There was that girl, Zelda, on Dobie Gillis, I think I got the name from her. Zelda was always the smarty-pants in the gang.” My only other association with the early 1960′s TV show, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, is that Gilligan was on it, as the beatnik Maynard G. Krebs. But the show was cancelled long before I was born. Long, I repeat, before.

dobiezelda

I appreciate that my mom chose to name my doll after a “smarty-pants,” and not some gooey, helpless, princess type. Thanks to Zelda, and my mother, I consider myself a smarty-pants to this day. It’s not a bad way to be. Because Wikipedia was invented for such smarty-pants who need answers fast, I decided to look up what happened to the original Zelda, the actress Sheila Kuehl.

It turns out she went to Harvard Law School and became the first openly gay person elected to the California legislature! Way to carry the flag for the smarty-pants of the world, Sheila Kuehl!

I am glad that my Zelda, saved from the fire, is now with my little Zoe. And hopefully, starting with Zelda and her raggedy endurance, I can pass onto Zoe all the things I learned since the doll was my own: to start with the back of the alphabet, go your own way, be a smarty-pants, and take care of what’s important, what’s your own. Especially, future Zoe, your poor old aunt. Will you take future me to the library and the diner when my future sons have forgotten to call? Please, future Zoe?

[This post was written for the WordPress Daily Prompt: Prized Possessions. Question: Describe an item you were incredibly attached to as a child. What became of it?]

My mother hates Dr Seuss! and other stories

The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, 1957

The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, 1957 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week my son brought home The Cat in the Hat from his school library, which is fitting because on March 2, Dr Seuss, the great children’s author and illustrator, would have been 109 years old.

He was great. Wasn’t he?

“Oh God, I hate Dr Seuss! He’s the worst!” my mother says. This jibes with my childhood memories; I had a ton of books at home growing up, but not a lot of Seuss. A few, yes: The Lorax, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (but not the first one), and that’s about it. On my mother’s list of forbidden childhood fun, Dr Seuss came in at number two, just beneath Santa Claus. Number three: Play-Doh. Number four: every other toy that was messy in any possible way. Number Five: Fun-Dip or Fun-any kind of candy. Funyuns also. No, she’s a great mom. Really.

Recently when my son took One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish out of the library I realized I had never read it before. At least as a child. After college I worked at Random House Children’s Books, which publishes the works of Seuss: the ones he wrote when he was living and the ones he wrote after he was dead. One of my tasks was tracking the sales of Seuss books. The top title, if I recall correctly, was Green Eggs and Ham.

I did not read that in my house. I did not read that with a mouse. I did not read it with my mother. She did not like it, so don’t bother!

“Why do I hate Dr Seuss?” she said, when I called to ask her. “Can’t it just be fun and simple? Why does he have to be a such a smarty-pants?”

This makes sense. If there is one thing my mother can’t abide, it’s a smarty-pants. “It’s like he’s trying to prove he’s so smart so he goes on and on and on. Sam I am Sam I am who cares? You know me, I want it short and to the point. Not impressed.”

Green Eggs and Ham

Sam I am enough already (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For many years my mother worked in the library at our local kindergarten center, so she has a pretty good knowledge of kids’ books. What was your policy on Dr Seuss in the library? I asked.

“Of course kids took the books out, but I didn’t promote Dr Seuss, I didn’t read Dr Seuss. I didn’t tell them not to, but I wasn’t going to read that jibber-jabber out loud. The Lorax, and all that stupid stuff? There’s nothing about it that I like.”

All righty. So, who are your favorite kids’ authors, then? How about Maurice Sendak? “Nope, didn’t like him either.” I almost hung up. I think that Where the Wild Things Are is one of the most perfectly written books, for kids or adults, ever.

“But I love Little Bear [which is illustrated by Sendak but written by Else Holmelund Minarik],” she said. “It’s so sweet and charming. And what else? God, I can’t think, I’m out of the library business. Kevin Henkes [I agree, I love everything he writes]. And Rosemary Wells [Oh that Max and Ruby!]. The Arthur books. Tomie De Paola. I don’t know, something that made you feel happy and cozy and comforted. Or something really funny. I don’t find Dr Seuss comforting or funny.”

“So can I pin this dislike for Dr Seuss on your childhood?”

She pauses. “Yeah, probably.”

My mother was born and lived, until she emigrated at five, in the south of Italy, in a poor, rural, mountain village. It was not unlike the setting of Strega Nona, the Tomie De Paola book which is a favorite of hers. Strega Nona is set in a fictional, fairy-tale Calabria, the region she was from, with its rough edges softened: Catholic and hardscrabble and peopled with goats, stubborn country folk and witches, like her mother, my own Strega Nona, without all the smiling and kiss-blowing.

It’s the kind of upbringing that looks romantic and interesting only in retrospect, from our family’s new vantage point on the U.S. east coast. But at the time, there was little room for romance in a medieval house with no heating and dirt floors. There, I would imagine, you’d seek comfort. Coziness. A simple happiness found at the edge of a desperately practical existence.

Old school.

Old school. My mother’s village in Calabria.

As we were talking about Dr Seuss my aunt walked into my mother’s house. She immediately gets on the anti-Seuss bandwagon: “Oh, I never wanted to read Dr Seuss to the kids either,” she says. “Sam I am? I am Sam? Really?

“And The Cat in the Hat? In our house cleaning up was not an option.”

“Our mother never left the house, so we never got the chance to make a mess,” my mother added. “That’s for Americans with leisure time.” Oh, the zingers you’ll zing.

I will grant them their literary tastes. It’s a free country after all. You can have unusually strong opinions about whimsical children’s book authors if you want to. But I can’t let Dr Seuss go undefended on his birthday. Especially now as a parent, watching my five-year-old, newly-reading son, read Seuss books.

As fanciful as Seuss books are, it was Hop on Pop that introduced my son to reading in the most sensible way. The book repeats simple words and then switches the final letter, and encourages kids to note the differences as they are helped along by the bright, silly pictures.

Children’s books serve all sorts of purposes. The books published before Dr Seuss, were, in many cases, cozy and comforting, and those books, like Goodnight Moon, have their essential place. And there were those, too, like the work of the excellent Virginia Lee Burton (The Little House), which took on the real world is a wonderful, honest way.

On the other hand, Dr Seuss, smarty-pants extraordinaire, introduced twentieth-century children to a world beyond the comforts of hearth and home, a world that recognizes the importance of letting your imagination run amok. Yet, they are not just flights of fancy; many Seuss books have essential lessons that burst right through the silliness. Think of The Lorax, The Sneeches, the Grinch, on and on. These books were of little use for my mother and aunt whose imaginations were shaped back in the old country, where they pretty much lived in the sixteenth century.

A few minutes after we spoke, my mother called back. “Here’s another quote for your blog. Everyone says they love Dr Seuss, but do they really?” When we say we like Dr Seuss, are we all just pretending to like something that comes off a bit highbrow? Like jazz, or Champions League soccer? I asked my son when he got home from kindergarten.

“O darling child, may I ask you something? Please, finish your quinoa and locally-sourced beets first.”

“Hm?” Looks up from book of mazes.

“Do you like Dr Seuss books?”

“Yes,” he says, unreservedly.

“Why?”

“Because they’re funny.” (Take that, Mom!)

“Why else?”

“They’re cool.”

OK, I can see that this is going to be the typical cavalcade of one-word knee-jerk responses. Not the burst of enlightenment I thought my research would bring me. But suffice it to say, he likes the books. He wants to read them, or have them read to him. My two-year-old does, too. He even likes And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. But he’s old school.

“What are else are you going to write about me?” my mother asked. “‘She didn’t bake, she didn’t play games, she didn’t do arts and crafts,’ right?” Well, she didn’t really. Those things aren’t in her bones. But listening is. And she talked to us. Candidly. And all the time. She still does.

So right now I’m going to call her back, for the fifth time today, and tell her: my grandparents schlepped all the way to America so that their descendants could sit around and enjoy piffle like Bartholomew and the Oobleck. So let’s, shall we? Oh, the places we can theoretically go!

Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) half-length portrait, s...

Happy birthday to you. World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Missing teeth

A young boy after losing two baby teeth, exfol...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was seven years old when my mother lost her last baby teeth. She was 32. I remember sitting at our dining room table and my mother striding in from the kitchen, then stopping. She put her thumbs in her mouth, gingerly touching each incisor. “Uh-oh,” she said. “My teeth are loose.” She wiggled her baby fangs, smaller than the rest of her teeth.

My mother and I were losing teeth at the same time! We were going through a childhood rite of passage together. The only difference was that my falling teeth were followed by visits from the tooth fairy, and hers by trips to the dentist to get fakes to replace adult teeth that were never going to come in.

In time, the family condition caught up with me. I was 10 when those same baby teeth came loose in my own mouth, with no permanent teeth underneath. I had to get a false tooth attached to my braces. Then at 11 I had a little operation to pull the other incisor down into my mouth from way up in my gums, or my head, wherever it was, tucked up in my sinuses, or my brain. I’ve heard of tumors that can grow teeth and hair within their amorphous masses. Teeth are strange, lawless little things that can grow in all the wrong places.

Eventually, when my braces came off, I had a bridge put in like my mother’s. Little metal wings stick the fake tooth to the two real teeth on either side. I walk around in my adult life waiting for the glue to become unstuck.  Where will I be, I wonder, when the bridge inevitably falls out? A PTA meeting? Pulling out my own child’s teeth?

After college, I went to a dentist for a checkup near where I lived in Brooklyn. I knew someone who lived above his office; she called him the “rentist.”

“Wow,” the rentist said when he checked my bridge. Then he said that since I had fewer teeth than the vast majority of people it meant that I was “highly evolved.” Fancy that. (Actually, it’s a genetic condition called hypodontia.) People with fewer teeth and less hair, according to him, were the future of the human race. A sleeker, smoother, less ferocious version of our atavistic selves, who would run wild through primeval forests, on the hunt, shaggy hair flying, like gaping, growling vestigial tumors.

I thought of my mother, with an extra missing incisor and fine, thin, straight hair. So she is as powerful as she would have us believe.

Naturally, I expected that my sons, being one generation more evolved than me, would also have a long wait for the tooth fairy. Imagine my surprise when I got a text from their Dad a short while ago: “C has a loose tooth!”

I was shocked. First because I’m usually there for every little thing my five-year-old does, for good or ill, and now I miss a major milestone whilst sitting in an Indian restaurant with a friend. As I picked up a samosa I felt a little woozy. I had a visceral reaction to the idea of these strange bones wobbling around his head.

I made it home just as C was settling into his bed. He let me put my finger in his little mouth and feel the front bottom tooth wiggle. “The tooth fairy is going to come soon!” I told him, a maniacal smile on my face. “Who’s the tooth fairy?” he asked.

I stroked his head as C fell asleep, untroubled by the tooth and the threats of paranormal nighttime visitors. I touched his cheek. But he just got these teeth! I thought. And they’re going already?

I closed the door to his room and went back down the dark stairs into the lighted kitchen, guns blazing. “Tomorrow we have to pull that tooth. It’s ready to come out. I feel queasy just thinking about it,” I said to his dad.

“Why?” he said. “What’s the rush?”

“What do you mean, ‘what’s the rush?’ We can’t just leave it hanging in there!”

“Why are you getting so excited about this? It will just fall out on its own, when its ready.”

Fall out when it’s ready? That’s not the way it was done in my family.  I knew my sisters would understand. I texted them about C’s tooth, and they both responded: “Don’t tell Crair.”

Our family is filled with stories of teeth that have been waylaid up in our heads or gone permanently missing. But when one of us gets a long-awaited loose tooth, it is removed post-haste. You’d think we’d want to enjoy it, let it hang out for a while. No. In our Italian family, our grandmother, whose teeth were most often found in a water-filled jar, or our aunt Crair (actually Elda Pia, which was Americanized to Claire, which became Crair in broken English) was summoned.

They were witch doctors for loose teeth. I still squirm when I think of myself at Crair’s house: steamy from bubbling pots on the stove, the telegiornale blaring, a thumb wrapped in a handkerchief bounding toward me. A sharp yank downwards. A dull, knee-weakening pain. The handkerchief shoved in to stop the blood.

I asked my husband, “This never happened to you?”

“No, that’s not how normal people do it. My parents never pulled out my teeth. I would just do it myself.  When it was really loose, I would just lift it out.” He moved his fingers like he was plucking a crocus. “Your family is weird.” Oh, really, you think my family is weird? I’ve never heard that before. ‘Mericani, I muttered. Just letting teeth flail about, instead of being proactive about it.

A few days passed, and the tooth was still dangling from C’s gums at all sorts of odd angles. I couldn’t take it anymore. I took matters into my own hands. He was at the dining room table waiting for an afterschool snack.

“Sssooo…do you want an apple? ” I asked him. He would. Super! Such a simple snack. I grabbed one from the kitchen, ran it under the tap, and proffered it to him in an enticing Lightning McQueen napkin.

“Is it fresh from the farm?” he asked. Kids these days.

“Oh yes.” I nodded innocently. “Enjoy, son.”

I went about my business. Then I heard, “What’s this?” On the napkin was a tiny morsel of white, with a bright red tip. Was it a bit of apple?

I was delighted. I picked him up and carried him around, making a fuss. I took pictures of the tooth, and his new smile, and sent them around. I talked up the tooth fairy, big time. C himself was a bit confused. “That red on the tooth is from the apple, right?” Sure it is. And then he moved on, to cars, Legos, pestering his little brother, who had eaten the remainder of the apple, seeds and all, when I was carrying on about the tooth.

I remember thinking, when C was a newborn, that once he sat up, or rolled over, I would never see him the same way again. He would become a totally different person to me. And now, with this tooth, and another one that fell out the following day at a Chinese restaurant, mid-dumpling (we never found it: presumed swallowed), it was the same. He was shedding his skin, and becoming a new, older boy, right before my eyes. As I parent I would need to catch up, again, and quickly morph into the mother of a genuine schoolboy, not a toddler, not a preschooler anymore.

Peeking in his mouth, I see a new tooth has already erupted; the baby tooth had no choice but to flee. Through these long days that make up life with little children, when it takes what seems like days to put on shoes and get out the door, they evolve so quickly into big, independent people. It’s like watching a time-elapsed video of a flower blooming. I try to keep up, but I know that one day, like the dinosaurs, I’ll be left behind by the march of time.

Even so, I am anxious for change to happen. I think of all the times I would prop up the boys up to sit, or roll them over, or wiggle C’s loose teeth. Though I love the boys how they are now, I know it’s my end game to see them through.

My mother was there as C’s second tooth came out in the restaurant. She looked over at him a little wistfully. “I’m still waiting for the tooth fairy,” she said.

Angry Birds Star Wars: O evil marketing geniuses!

Birds, Pigs and the mediator (Asi Cohen) posed...

Birds, Pigs and the mediator posed for a photo shortly before talks broke down. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Several months ago, I wrote a blog post about my decision to stop letting my four (now five) year-old son, C, play Angry Birds. It’s been about seven months, and all has been fairly well: keeping him away from the addictive game has diminished how much he fights about relinquishing the iPad when his time is up. It’s allowed me one small parenting victory (just one is all I ask!): he has become much more understanding of the fact that the iPad is a “sometimes” toy, rather than an all-encompassing center of the universe. And with no Angry Birds, he is much more interested in playing games directed towards children, built to be more like open-ended toys, like the Toca Boca games, or straight-up educational games. Lately he’s been playing this Montessori game which repeatedly drills him on the geography of North and Central America with no discernable end or even pretend achievements like stickers to keep him going. He probably thinks, “I can’t play anything fun, so I might as well learn where Belize is.” Is this something to be proud of? I’m not sure, but I’ll go with yes. Come on!

Can any of YOU pick Belize out on a map? Didn’t think so.

So the Great Experiment worked: he’s dropping out of kindergarten in the New Year to head to Yale on a bassoon/Geography/handball scholarship. Well, no. But I do think he got something out of it.

Until now. We are sitting at the dining room table on a Sunday, as little brother naps, doing crossword puzzles and coloring and computing, all while eating bacon: a collection of fortifying family activities for a brisk fall day, all in aid of our goal of leaf-raking avoidance. C just achieved a bevy of points in a reading game on the iPad. How does his father reward him?

I see him swiping at the screen. Swiper, no swiping!

Oh man! After months of keeping the birds at bay, turning sharp corners in the supermarket to avoid the Angry Birds gummy candy displays, and not commenting on the fact that his kindergarten teachers dressed as Angry Birds for Halloween, we are back at the trough. Angry Birds Star Wars has proved too much to resist. C’s Dad looks at me sheepishly as he hits BUY in the App Store.

Those Finnish geniuses. They know you might be able to resist plain old Angry Birds. But if you are Star Wars fans? Like this father and son duo I’m looking at right here, pondering how to chuck a Luke Skywalker bird at some Storm Trooper pigs? The force is too great. It can’t be escaped, just as Han Solo is trapped by the carbonite. They’ve pulled us into a Sarlacc pit in a nexus of perfect marketing synergy. I am trying to think of more Star Wars metaphors, but I’ve run out. Like I’ve written before, I’m not much of a Star Wars fan myself.

I suppose I am OK with C returning to the game. Maybe it’s because I have never gotten over my mother denying us certain toys when we were kids, practicing something, what’s that called again? Oh, restraint. Play-doh? Play don’t. Easy Bake Oven? Ask my sister how that request was handled. I respect that tactic now, but at the time it was a bummer. So though I am trying to teach my kids that a trip to into town is not cause to treat yourself, I can’t resist sometimes, when I see something I know they will really like.

Which is all the time. Those things that I know my kids will really like know how place themselves right in front of my face. Are my spending habits so easy to peg, O marketing gods? I am constantly confronted with versions of Angry Birds Star Wars every time I shop, those perfect combinations of favorite things: Spider-Man Matchbox cars? Synergy! Must-have! Bubble Guppies iPad game? Do it. Lego Star Wars, Lego Dinos, Lego Fire Trucks? Say no more. Candy that looks like Legos, gummies that look like Dinos? Yes. Switch and Go Dinos? It’s a car, it’s a dino, it’s a car, it’s a dino…it’s on Santa’s list.

It goes for me as well: how does Target know that I will totally buy them out of Orla Kiely-themed Method cleaning products? That seemed kind of specific, but apparently I am not the only one who so clearly fits into that Anglophile, green-clean loving, bargain shopping demographic.

Anyone who knows me, including the marketing elves that clearly follow me around, knows I bought a ton of these.

So I sympathize with Swiper McGee over here, although we will have to see what the consequences will be. There will be a lot of talk, as there is at this very moment, of the powers of the various bird-shaped Star Wars good guys, and we will have to listen. And if the fighting over the iPad returns, Angry Birds Star Wars is going back to its galaxy far, far away.

Christmas is coming, and my boys are still a bit young to come at me with an Excel spreadsheet of their demands – they don’t really have a lot of expectations for what they will receive, and it’s my job to keep it that way. And maybe because, throughout the year, they are gifted with things they didn’t even know they wanted, it keeps the pressure off Christmas to be a gift-fest. I hope.

Instead of charging into stores with long lists, we can focus on all of the other things about the season that we really enjoy: driving around looking at Christmas lights, decorating the tree, watching A Charlie Brown Christmas, making gingerbread houses. Do they make Star Wars Millenium Falcon gingerbread house kits? I’ll have to look into that.

It’s the great Halloween anxiety, Charlie Brown

This is real-time anxiety happening here, as I write at the coffee shop while C is at kindergarten. This morning I sent him to his school Halloween celebration as half a vampire.

Weeks ago, C decided he wanted to be a vampire for Halloween. His Dad bought him some rubber teeth and face paint, so he’s set there. So what else does the costume entail? I struggled to think.

I’m not that creative when it comes to sewing or Halloween costumes. And I’ve never really enjoyed trick-or-treating that much. For me, as a nervous kid, it was just another avenue for rejection – who would invite you to their party? Would you have to go out alone? What if your costume wasn’t any good? So you see what my start-point for Halloween is.

The cape was crucial to C’s transformation to vampire. “I’m going to wear my superhero cape,” he declared. It’s royal blue with a big yellow thunderbolt on it.

“But a vampire wears a black cape,” I told him. No. He doesn’t want to wear a black cape. OK.

I looked online to see what a kids’ vampire costume looks like in the marketplace.

No. That’s ridiculous. I just can’t. And come on, I thought, trying to cajole the Halloween spirit out, I can make a costume myself! Isn’t that what Halloween is all about? That should win points. With whom, I should have asked.

I scoured the local craft shops (O look at me! Aren’t I great for avoiding the big-box stores!) for more vampire accoutrement. Since grown-up, sexy lady vampire was out of the question, I didn’t find much. Just an adult-sized wig that I thought I could trim and gel, but it just ended up looking like a shedding black cat. So I bought a white dress shirt, by “Joey Couture,” which felt like tissue paper. I added some navy sweatpants, for comfort. I found a medal he’d won as a party prize. With the teeth, the pallid face, black-rimmed eyes, and blood-red lips (I am confident in make-up, at least), C should be good to go.

Then the notice came home from school. No fake blood. No face paint. Nothing violent. The teeth would definitely be confiscated, ala A Christmas Story. Rats. Maybe I can turn him into a True Blood-style vampire, ala Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgaard). He’s already got the hair and the J.Crew sweaters. No cape and Dracula gear required…no, probably not.

This morning, C gamely put on his sweatpants, his shirt, his cape. “These are the most important parts of a vampire costume anyway,” he said.

We opened our front door and headed to school. Heading down the steps, I noticed someone stole our pumpkin. No jack-o-lantern tonight. Keep going. A group of C’s classmates was walking up the street. A witch, a tiger, a princess. “Are you a superhero?” the witch asked.

“I’m a vampire,” C said quietly.

“He’s a baby vampire,” I said, to the parents, I suppose. “His teeth haven’t come in yet.” I felt the need to make excuses, not for him, but for myself, as I started to get the feeling I let him down, with his dressy-yet ready for gym class-superhero get-up.

When we got to the playground, the place was swirling with store-bought costumes of every variety. More tigers. More princesses. Superheroes of every stripe. A ninja. And C, with his halo of blond hair, his blue eyes and long, drooping eyelashes, hardly looking like a creature of the night. “Are you Superman, C?” asked one of his friends, dressed as a superhero whose name I didn’t catch, resplendent with fake muscles.

“No!” T spoke up, marching up to this macho man, in his Snoopy Halloween t-shirt. “Vam-pah!”

The bell rang, and C got in line. He was quiet, but he always is when he heads into school. Yet my sinking feeling was growing. What if I’ve failed him? I worried. What if my poor attempt at making a genuine Halloween costume, with my lack of skills and vision, is going ruin his first schoolboy Halloween? What have I done? Good grief.

My face was a mask of cheer as I said goodbye. “You look so great!” The parade of costumes started moving. “Good-bye, Vampire!”

Even T was in on it. “Bye!” He jumped and waved. “Arrgghh!” He did his best scary monster sound.

We trudged home through the hurricane-tossed leaves. It’s my job, I thought, to fill C with confidence, so he’d be dashing around the schoolyard, cape flying. And just because I didn’t press click on a costume because I thought it was tacky, maybe he feels less-than. And the fears started gathering strength and speed as they swirled through my mind. What if he, because of this botched first attempt, never likes Halloween again? He was so excited about it this year. He drew a jack-o-lantern in the October 31 box on the kitchen calendar. He decorated our house with orange streamers and webs and fake spiders. He told everyone he was going to be a vampire. And now, as they are probably at this moment marching through the school hallways showing off their costumes, is he?

My mother made incredible Halloween costumes for me as a kid: a parrot with crepe-paper wings, the Statue of Liberty, with green face paint and a dyed sheet. I was Halley’s Comet the year it appeared, as a giant painted sandwich board affair. One year I was Where’s Waldo, that was pretty good. And, despite all my worry, when I think back, I did go to parties, and trick-or-treating; I roamed streets with silly string and shaving cream. I did have fun. So this anxiety comes from me, not my experiences – and it’s still in me. As I write, I am making a vow to not dump all that in C’s trick-or-treat bag, as it were.

Maybe Halloween is never going to be like it was in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. I’m not going to be able to cut holes in a sheet, throw it over the boys, and send them out into the night, all innocence and sincerity. There are going to be store-bought costumes, and stickers instead of candy, and rules to follow to make Halloween palatable for the modern school day. But it will always be there, and C loves it. So it’s time for me to put aside my inner Charlie Brown, so that C doesn’t become the same: all good intentions sidelined by worry and fear. Better to be like Linus, willing to look a fool in a pumpkin patch, because, pure in spirit, he believes in the Great Pumpkin.

As as for T? I think he’s a Lucy-type, so we better all beware.

A child’s history of time

Sometimes when I drive the boys around town I take intentionally circuitous routes, thinking they won’t notice an extra five minutes tacked on to their journey. It’s an extra five minutes of peace for me, keeping them in their car seats, contained, controlled, unable to leap out and run away or start smacking each other about the head.

But lately, C has been on to me. We are taking the long way home from an after-school trip to the supermarket.

“You’re taking the long way! You’re doing it on purpose, to make me tired!” He knows a few extra minutes in the car will push him into nap territory, which is fine with me. “We live the other way! Turn around!”

But sometimes he is in the mood to relent, to relax, to stare out the window for a while, only to be interrupted by T screaming when he sees a bus or a fire truck. Amid the yelling, C waxes philosophical:

“The first people who ever lived,” he starts, “who were their mommies and daddies? If they were the first people, whose tummy were they in?”

That’s a hard one. “It’s a mystery,” I tell him. “We can’t know for sure, because none of us were there. But scientists can look at clues they find in nature and guess.”

The back seat is quiet. There are no buses around. I can almost feel C thinking back there, trying to unravel time. Another thought:

“So, how did all of this get here?” He flaps a hand toward the window. “Who put the trees here, and the houses? Did the first people do that?”

A lot to wrap my head around while I’m wheel-to-wheel with lunatic Boston drivers. “When the world was new, many many years ago,” I begin, “none of this was here. There were no streets, no houses, just nature. Trees, and rivers, and animals. And when humans came around they slowly started adding things to the land, like farms, then streets, and buildings, so over a long time, things began to look how they look now. Does that make sense?”

“I think so,” he said. And he nodded off.

C, Kindergartener, is really ramping up on a lot of crucial topics that are set to become his everyday schoolboy occupations. He’s getting the hang of writing, a bit of math, and stringing letters together to begin to read. But he is still trying to grasp the the concept of time. Even the true length of five minutes is hard for him to comprehend. When he needs to wait for me to do something for him, like get him a snack or put on his favorite show, five minutes, by his reckoning, is just a count to five. But when he’s only got five minutes to play before we leave for school, those brief counts turn into hours. “That wasn’t five minutes!” He’s admant. “That was five seconds!”

So it’s no wonder that history, stretching back into the fog of time, is something he has a lot of questions about. That’s a lot of seconds, minutes, and hours for him to hold in his head. And so many of his fascinations are in the realm of long ago. So in C’s personal timeline, history looks like this:

First: Dinosaurs, of course. Then pyramids, and mummies.

Immediately followed by: Pompeii. His favorite.

Up next: Castles and Playmobil knights.

Which brings us straight to: The Revolutionary War.

Then: Papa is born. Poor Papa.

My own childhood fascination timeline looked something like this: Trilobites. Mummies. Ancient Rome. Barbarians and the Dark Ages. The 1950′s. And then you’re Back to the Future.

I must have also asked my parents constant questions about time, because on a trip to the Smithsonian, they bought me a book called Life Story, by the great Virginia Lee Burton (most famous for The Little House and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel). I still have the book, and when C asks his questions about the Earth, and what came first then next, and how we got here, we read it together. I still love reading it.

My copy.

It has my name in fourth-grade handwriting inside the front cover, and it’s worn. Published in 1962, it presents the history of the earth as a theatre production, set on a stage, in acts and scenes, beginning with a time when the earth was a “red-hot fiery ball of matter,” and ending in the present, as the seasons change on Burton’s family farm in Massachusetts.

The book beautifully unwinds the tight coil of time into a long, gently turning ribbon; it’s a perfect metaphor. At the beginning of the ribbon is a tiny question mark – the very dawn of everything. The ribbon uncoils, introducing our Sun, and Solar System, and then the book zeroes in on Earth, our home, that fiery ball which cooled and shrank, making mountains like wrinkles. A Geologist on the stage hands over narrator duties to a Paleontologist, who announces the Rains, and the tiny creatures that lived in the great seas that washed over the entire surface of the planet.

Image from childrensbookalmanac.com

Page by page, new players are continually added to the theatre of Life on Earth, from trilobites and cephalopods, to the plants of the ancient forests. I remember, as a child, my favorite page was Act I, Scene 4: Life on the Devonian Shores. From about 350,000,000 years ago, to about 315,000,000 years ago.

“Land plants flourished, clothing our once bare Earth in green…The long Age of Invertebrates had come to an end. Seas, lakes, rivers, and streams swarmed with fish — big fish, little fish, and medium-sized. A few even developed lungs and crawled from puddle to puddle on land.”

In the accompanying picture, strange, curling ferns stretched toward a huge sun, while undersea fish with wide eyes and blunt teeth hunted smaller ones. After I got the book, I was fascinated by the sight of ferns. I tried to imagine that plants very much like the ferns I saw around my town lived millions of years ago, and if I looked at them, and tried to block out everything modern surrounding them, I could take myself back to that long-gone time. I felt like I was trying to recoil all of those ribbons, and hold all of time in my head in a little ball, trying to grasp it all at once, and feel its enormity. It was a great feeling; like a mysterious trance.

[C's current favorite page is Prologue, Scene 4: Introducing first rocks, Igneous rocks. Featuring the world as one giant Vesuvius]

I decorated the inside cover of the book with Pterodactyl ink stamps that my parents bought me on another trip, also when I was about nine. We rented a house in Watkins Glen, on Lake Seneca, in the Finger Lakes of Upstate New York. When we got to the house, the yard and every tree in it was covered in black caterpillar-like things, about an inch-and-a-half long. A plague of gypsy moths. They were everywhere. And they were inside the house, too. Knowing my mother, I am shocked we did not get back in the blue station wagon and go immediately back to Long Island to spend the week in the sprinker on our smooth, concrete driveway. But we stayed.

We went to Watkins Glen State Park, where we bought the stamper in a gift shop at the end of a gorge trail. I don’t know if it’s still there, but at the beginning of the trail, I remember a railing with a timeline on it that took you further and further back into history with every step: past the fifties, the birth of Papa, Lexington and Concord, the plague, and the pyramids. To 350,000,000 years ago. And at the end of the railing, you emerged onto the trail, in the gorge, and back at the dawn of time.

This wasn’t like looking at a backyard fern and blocking out the garage and the concrete and the chain-link fence. The primordial world was all around us, without interruption, unbound. There were fossils in the huge walls of Devonian shale that formed the sides of the gorge, which was cut into the earth by a gentle creek flowing on and on over eons. There were plants – huge trees, as well as ferns and mosses, that had been growing there always. And the sounds – rushing water, wind in leaves – were the same sounds the first people must have heard as they walked through that same place thousands of years ago. All that was new were the railings that contained us, stopped us from falling down below, to a bottom I couldn’t see. And the gift shop, that was new too.

English: Watkins Glen, New York

Watkins Glen, New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was enrapt, there in the gorge. I felt like I was actually winding back the clock, seeing what life was like before there were streets, and towns, or even foot-beaten trails in the woods. It was amazing. And now, as I listen to his questions, his car-ride conversations, I see C trying to to get to that same place, trying to wrap his head around history, or rather, wrap up history in his head, just like I used to do. I can sense him entering that wonderful trancelike state, playing with the ribbon of time between his fingers.

I need to take him to that gorge. And Pompeii. And a million other places.

As an adult, how do you get that back? How do you let your mind become unbound, unconstrained, uncoiled? How do you allow yourself to imagine the hugeness of the earth, of time, of everything? How can you keep that nerve that lets you believe you can hold it all in your head? Can we do this, can we thread it between traffic jams, and to-do lists, our grown-up cares?  Or do we need to achieve this through our children, let them out of their restraints, watch them as they try understand the world into which they were dropped?

Wheels Over Indian Trails

When my children remember being small, what images will come to their minds? Memory comes on like the pops of flashbulbs, one image, then another, until the light stays on to make a continuous picture. For me, Memory Number One is at age three, in my nursery room classroom, a dark room in the basement of a church. Cubbies and fingerpaints. The face on box of Munchkins. A set of stairs in the room that rose to a window, where we’d crawl out into the light, to the playground. Pop.

Next I’m in the car in the parking lot behind Miller’s Hardware in Lynbrook, New York, listening to “Love Will Keep Us Together” by the Captain and Tenille. Pop. “I will! I will!” Pop back to nursery school: the water table, plastic smocks, a Thanksgiving feast, a paper pilgrim bonnet, a turkey made out of an orange. Pop. There was a kid I dubbed “Ned the Head.” It was apt. He had a blond bowl cut. Where is he now? I think my mother knows but I won’t ask.

From when C was a baby we tried to take him on all sorts of adventures, thinking what he saw and did from birth would inform his character forever. He was eight months old when we took him to England, for a wedding, and we thought that though he’d never remember it, somehow the fact that he first saw the sea at the Jurassic Coast in Devon would always live within him. Maybe he’d grow up and crave ice cream cones with Flakes stuck in. Maybe he’d be a Hardy scholar. Maybe he’d buy his mother a retirement cottage in Lyme Regis. Nice thoughts.

C and his Dad at Beer, in Devon. Look over at the sea, C.

But subsequent, post-age-three trips to the beach in Long Island and Cape Cod have laid themselves over these first memories, and those trips pop into his head when now, at age 5, he thinks of the beach. Digging for something he calls “fish yolks” in the primordial ooze at the Brewster salt flats, throwing rocks into Gardiner’s Bay, or the surfside playground at Hither Hills. Pop.

The tide goes out in Brewster.

Now T is two, and we are on our own in the mornings before his nap, while C is at kindergarten. We trudge home after drop off. He plays trucks, blocks, looks at his books while I clean up breakfast, get started on the laundry. I think, I could take him to the farm/playground/Science Museum. But then, I think, ah, forget it, he won’t remember it anyway. The lot of the second child.

When we toured C’s kindergarten room before school started, it struck me how so many things hadn’t changed since I had been in kindergarten myself. I remembered the little colored plastic cubes they use to learn math. The calendar with numbered, changeable cards. Still the same. Pop. While C sat at a table and he and his new classmates stared shyly at each other, checking to see who would be the first to glue colored macaroni on a birthday crown, I chased T around the room while he took it upon himself to try out/destroy kindergarten. He grabbed at the calendar and I was brought back to that old room. Pop.

I heard the songs my teacher, Mrs Kurtzer, would bang out on the piano. “Abraham Lincoln kind and true. You did the best a man can do. Abraham Lincoln, we! Love! You!” I think she might have made it up on the spot. She did her best. There were the transparent, colored records she would play for holidays; an orange one for Halloween. Red for Valentine’s Day. The foods she would bring for each letter of the alphabet. Carob for C. It was the last gasp of the seventies. E was a tough one: “Edam Cheese.” I can still hear her say EEE-dam, and I think that’s the only time I have ever eaten it. Pop. Pop. The flashbulbs are getting closer together, and they must be for C now too. I must be careful what I say to him, I think. He’s going to start remembering it now.

That night I had a dream about going back to kindergarten. I was a parent this time, and I think I was supposed to be there for C, but it was definitely my classroom back in Oceanside, N.Y. In Mrs Kurtzer’s room there was a circle made out of black linoleum laid into the floor. We used to sit around the circle. In the dream, it was torn up; I could see where the circle had been, in an outline of crumbling, funny-shaped beige lino stuck in the old ruts. On top of the old circle was a big, colorful rectangular rug, like the kind we saw in C’s room. It made me sad to see that old circle, such an indelible image of school in my mind, carelessly ripped up and covered over. I had trouble falling back asleep after that; I had to go downstairs and watch a sitcom on TV at 3am.

Besides the typical flashes of school and home life, my early memories stem from our family’s frequent trips into New York City. It was probably then that I developed my abiding love for New York. Even now those first memories come back to me in a heady rush and make me miss the old place, more than usual. And for some reason I remember the journeys in and out more than I remember what we did when we got there, things like seeing the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, going up to Columbia to see my aunt and uncle, or eating lemon gelato at Ferrara’s in Little Italy during the San Gennaro festival. Instead, it’s the Southern State, crossing into city limits on the Cross Island, a huge full moon over the Belt Parkway one night on a return trip from Brooklyn.

But most of all, it’s this -

English: John Fekner © 1979-1990 Wheels Over I...

By John Fekner. © 1979-1990 Long Island City, NY. Pulaski Bridge overpass at the Queens Midtown Tunnel.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The stenciling, in my memory, was more faded than it is in the image. When I see it in my mind the peeling paint is surrounded by a riot of traffic, grafitti, and slapped-up posters on the busy way into the city from the suburbs. On these trips, leaning back on blue leatherette in the back of a station wagon, I would anticipate this overpass and prepare myself to read this slogan. It filled me with dread. It couched my ever-present excitement to go into the city with sadness, and I went under the river feeling blue. But I guess if you love New York, that’s part of what you love; the melancholy, the ghosts of all the things that are lost, the dust heaps. The brutal passing of time, the bad dreams you have to live with if you want to press forward. Without that, the city could never be the continually changing fascination that it will always remain. And I’ll always mourn those indian trails, buried under a thousand levels of dust and asphalt, like I’ll mourn those palimpsests of early memories, my own and my children’s.

Right now, T is sweetly asleep. C is at school, sitting “criss-cross applesauce” on a brightly colored rug, tracing letters and learning songs, his head filling up with all wondrous and new things, and out will go the old. Until recently, he could still recall moments from his toddler days, but now, like me, he can only reach back to three. And I can already see, when we talk about nursery school, his old memories are popping like bubbles. He can no longer remember a time before his brother, but that’s as it should be. Later, after school, the three of us will go to Lexington for haircuts and ice cream, and play ball on the Battle Green, a patch of grass where, years before, something very different happened. Pop. While they fill their days with childhood concerns I’ll watch and remember, and act as steward for their early years, so those memories can one day, unlike indian trails, rise to the surface again.

And the gold medal for watching the Olympics goes to…

London Olympics 2012

London Olympics 2012 (Photo credit: Andrea Vascellari)

Me! Team USA!

As a teenager, I found a questionnaire I filled out for school as a nine-year-old. Who was my hero? Nancy Hogshead, I wrote.

Nancy Hogshead? The name no longer meant anything to me. But it stayed in my head. Who was this person that I looked up to in 1984? That I valued more than my parents, or Madonna, or Garfield? And should I be embarrassed? It took the invention of the internet a several years later to figure out the identity of this hero I had long forgotten.

Nancy Hogshead won three gold medals and one silver in swimming at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Ah, that makes perfect sense, I realized. That’s why I became an ace swimmer at UCLA and won those five gold medals in Atlanta in 1996. I knew I was in Atlanta in 1996 for something. Thanks, internet.

I can’t attribute a stellar athletic career to Nancy Hogshead, but she is probably responsible for something else: how so very much I love the Olympics. Watching them, that is. I haven’t missed a moment since 1984. And now, as they are set to begin on Friday, I have that happy, carefree feeling that I get every other year, because two solid weeks of fairly uncomplicated patriotism, loud athletic fashion, underdog glory, and a tiny hint of schadenfreude are on their way to my television screen. And computer. And iPhone. Oh, the coverage. I love television events that aren’t called programs, but “coverage.” They just go on and on…I can just melt into it.

And it’s just in time to ease me out of my Tour de France addiction. AND better yet! They are about to begin in my second-favorite city in the world! Which is perfect, because my first-favorite city and home metropolis, New York, probably could do without the aggravation of putting on an Olympic Games. Enough already.

So what can you do if you can’t wait till Friday, when you can obsessively watch each and every participating nation parade into the Olympic stadium so that you can pick out some early favorites and make a top ten best (and worst) team outfits list? And then plan a viewing schedule that best coincides with nap times and camp? Here’s how.

If Showtime is not showing a round-the-clock marathon of Bud Greenspan Presents: Tales of Olympic Glory, which as an imprecise but apt name for this television series, they are severely missing out on some good synergy…what? They’re not showing it right now? Oh. That’s too bad. Guess you’ll have to read this blog to find out what you’re missing.

The late, great documentarian Bud Greenspan made a TV series that showcased a collection of the most inspiring stories to come out of each recent edition of the Games. While b-roll and properly-licensed footage ran, an announcer gravely, deeply, and with little – no – zero emotion provided a voiceover telling stories of self-doubt which turned to triumph, or fear which turned to tragedy, which turned to glory. Stories of economic/national/parental obstacles, or bodily harm overcome. And so on. The modern Olympics, since they began, are filled with thousands of these stories. I don’t know about the original Olympics – they didn’t have Showtime then. But probably.

I love all of Greenspan’s documentaries, but every time I see that dear man’s name come up in my channel guide, I manage to see the same episode: Nagano ’98 Olympics: Bud Greenspan’s Stories of Honor and Glory. And each time I turn on this show to indulge in said honorable and glorious tales, I see the same two tales again and again: the American speedskater Kirstin Holum, and the Italian skier Deborah Compagnoni. Which is fine. I love those two stories.

Kirstin Holum was an American high school student from someplace, I forget where. Unfortunately I can’t find any of this on YouTube, as I was positive I would, so work with me as I try to conjure up the key details. She made it onto the U.S. Speed Skating team, blah blah blah, and competed against her rival, some Norwegian or possibly Dutch lady who was very good, and very complimentary toward Kirstin when she came in, I believe, sixth. After the race, Holum’s coach said something to her like, “Look! You get a certificate for coming in the top six! Yay!” And…that is it. That’s the whole story. No meth addiction to fight through, she wasn’t raised by wolves or anything; she was just a high school girl who got to the Olympics. Which is awesome. But then…

…we get to Bud’s wrap-up of the scene, as we watch Kirstin skate away to collect her certificate or whatever. Again, I paraphrase: “Kirstin Holum, one of the many in a firmament of stars, that break through the atmosphere, kiss us on the face, so that we make understand glory before she disappears back into the universe.” I kid, but I’m not off by much. The word “firmament” was definitely in there.

Now, this girl came in sixth in a pretty minor, as it goes, sport, and he’s bathing her with language usually reserved for Jesus. I am loving her achievement, but this firmament business is overmuch, wouldn’t you say? The tone of the whole series is this grave and earnest. And I don’t usually go in for grave and earnest, but I have to say, you’ve got me, Bud. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Because that’s one of the best things about the Olympics, to me: let’s allow ourselves (and by ourselves, I mean myself) just a few unironic, earnest moments every couple of years. Let’s drop our masks, and revel in someone else’s success, be inspired by their efforts, and hope that it may mean something bigger.

I, personally, have no desire in my life to skate, or swim, or do any sport competitively, if at all, but if these Olympians can do it, then that makes me happy. And I guess that’s why my happiness for them is so uncomplicated: it’s envy-free. If I were settling down to watch two weeks of people going for glory in the fields of awesome blogging, say, or tantrum-free parenting, then I might find it a little harder to watch. And by the way, did you know that later, Kirstin Holum left the sport and became a nun? You go girl. Sorry about the Jesus remark.

On to story #2. Deborah Compagnoni, as deep, serious, voiceover man will tell you, was the “female Alberto Tomba.” You know Tomba la Bomba, right? Compagnoni is a child of the Italian Alps, and as voiceover man talks, she walks through the green, sloping Tyrol in an oversized, Benetton-esque sweater and faded jeans. The Italians would call that kind of girl acqua e sapone: soap and water, pretty and natural. Long story short, she’s tough as nails and came back from severe knee injury to win another medal in her third Olympics. She’s one of the most famous Italian sportswomen, and, as the internet told me, later went on to marry Alessandro Benetton, so she’ll never have to pay for those chunky sweaters again! This is a great, straightforward sports success story, but I have to tell you, if I am asked to fill out another questionnaire in my adult life, under “hero,” I’m putting Deborah Compagnoni! I have no good reason, really: she’s not curing cancer or stopping global warming. That I know of. I just would love to be an acqua e sapone girl growing up in the Italian Alps, then national sport hero, then fixture of the Italian social scene married to a fashion magnate! Wouldn’t you?? And she looks amazing! Come on!

So we’ve established that I love the Olympics because I 1) enjoy occasionally basking openly in the happiness of others 2) enjoy living vicariously through glamorous international types (which is also why I enjoy the Tour de France). There are lots of other reasons, but this has gone on long enough. Suffice it to say I hope to add more stars to my Olympic-watching firmament over the next few weeks: big, bright ones like la Deborah, and others that glimmer faintly from nunneries like Kirstin. Here’s to hoping that Olympic fever will catch on with my children, and they’ll find their own Nancy Hogsheads, for future questionnaires. Here’s to loads of the kind of drama that makes sport great; really baffling outfits; underdogs that stun the world, and oh yeah, I did say schadenfreude.

That’s for you, Mama Phelps. I’ve already seen enough of your mug on TV in obnoxious commercials, not to mention your attention-hogging in the stands while people are trying to swim in the Olympic Trials. Give someone else a turn, am I right, Mrs. Lochte? Enough already.

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