It is just after 4 o’clock in the morning. I know this because I hear my son’s husky voice declare, “Omigod! I can’t believe it’s 4 to the 12!” (Me either. sigh)
He is looking at Aaron’s cell phone, at the clock that dominates the screen when the phone is charging: 4:12. I see his face lit only by the eerie greenish glow of the phone, his hair all bed-heady, his eyes animated and intensely focussed.
I should be annoyed. Sleep is the most precious thing in the life of a parent of young children, and I do not take kindly to being woken up if someone is not puking or if there isn’t, at the very least, a fire.
But Zeke catches my attention with what he says next, melting away any anger that might have been forming.
“Is the north getting cold again Mom?”
We’ve been talking about global warming. We heard a report on the radio about how scientists are struggling to find a way to preserve the polar bear species outside of their quickly disappearing natural habitat without placing them all on public display. The reporter said that, for the first time, it appeared quite possible that we would live in a world without polar bears within his lifetime. Zeke was riveted and concerned. He kept asking me how this could be happening. We watched some YouTube videos of polar bears sloshing through melting ice and swimming aimlessly through endless water, in search of something solid to stand on.
One chilly morning he leapt into my lap, threw his arms around my neck, and exclaimed,
“I have great news Mom! The earth is getting cold again! Look outside! The sky is all gray! I think it’s going to rain!”
He was so exhilarated by this miraculous development, by the extraordinary fact that a horrible tragedy appeared to be reversing course, that there was just no way that I could explain to him that the whole mess was a little more complicated than that. So I just hugged him close, told him I loved him, and made him some breakfast.
This morning, though, the streets still relatively quiet, the street lamps still lit, Zeke’s mind has clearly been buzzing with activity for quite some time.
He speaks quickly, inspired:
“What if I brought a big bucket of ice up to the north? I could pour it in the water and make it all cold again!
“And when that bucket gets empty, I could bring another and another and another.”
Another idea occurs to him, “Or I could make a machine that shoots sticky snow! It could stick the snow to the other snow so that it was all one big thing again! But it wouldn’t stick to the bears! Just to snow, and the bears would have a whole big ice land for their home again!
“It could be my GREATEST INVENTION!”
My voice is thick, hoarse with sleep, and I feel genuinely sad as I say, “I wish you could fix it that way sweetie, but unfortunately the problem is much bigger than that. What will need to happen is for all of the people in the world to change the way that they live and to try and take better care of the earth.”
Zeke looks at me very seriously, his voice is world-weary (at 5) and thoughtful, “Yes. Because many people don’t care about the earth. They are selfish and they only think about themselves and their families.
They don’t realize that THE EARTH IS A LIVING THING!”
“You’re right,” I say. “It’s a very big problem and the grownups spend a lot of time arguing about what to do, when they could be trying to fix things.
Then Zeke fixes his blue eyes steadily on mine and says, with a very adult determination,
“Well, then it just might be up to the boys and girls.”
My husband and I got a rare break from the incessant demands of childcare the other night when my parents came and took my children to stay with them for an entire week. We celebrated our first night of freedom with a trip to the movies. It was hot out and we decided to go see The Heat. It was supposed to be funny and didn’t look particularly mentally taxing, which seemed to fit the bill for the evening.
We chose a theater near Union Square to catch the movie and as we walked by we saw many people gathered there.
Hundreds certainly. Thousands, maybe.
They were in a pen created by metal barriers, reinforced by a battalion of police officers who stood, hands on hips, on the other side.
We couldn’t cross the square without asking permission of an officer to go behind the barrier and then asking again to be released. The people who stood there held banners made from bedsheets and placards with slogans scrawled on pizza boxes.
They were quiet mostly. There was a feeling of mourning, mostly.
Our movie was starting soonish and we were both hungry, so, rather than cut across the square and be forced to deal with all of that, we went the long way around to find someplace where we could quickly grab a bite.
After artfully stashing my chocolate covered pretzels, Diet Coke and yogurt in my bag, we went into the theater and found seats. My husband and I engaged in our usual negotiations about what row to sit in: he going right to row 2, me to row 15; both eventually ending up together, somewhere in the middle. As always, we silently conferred about the previews, shaking our heads disapprovingly at the stinkers, exchanging raised-eyebrow glances at those that looked promising.We munched our snacks, basked in the air-conditioning, and held each other’s hands.We were ready to be care-free and to laugh at a ridiculous profanity-laden film, that we could never take our children to see.
And The Heat was funny!
The whole audience was rollicking: laughing loudly at every crazy, inappropriate thing that wackily-vested, frizzy-haired Melissa McCarthy said; guffawing whenever characters onscreen rolled their eyes at uptight Sandra Bullock with her stupid, fussily bobby-pinned hair and her tailored lady suits.
My husband was issuing these deep belly-laughs with a wet choking quality, and as I watched him wipe tears from his eyes and lean back in his seat so that he could relax more deeply into the laughter, I noticed that I was distracted, merely issuing a polite chuckle here and there.
I really wanted to laugh but for some reason, like an annoying pebble in my shoe that I just couldn’t ignore, I found myself picturing the photos printed out on paper and glued to the back of pizza boxes, the slogans painted in neon colors and outlined with sharpie, and the people who I’d seen, somberly standing in an improvised cage surrounded by uniformed officers.
I felt like a wet blanket. I was there to escape– to have fun.
So when Melissa McCarthy ripped off Sandra Bullock’s uptight trousers and knelt staring at her fastidious beige Spanx, completely aghast at the rigid little woman before her and the depth of her control issues, I tried to get into it. It was really funny. Really.
But then, there was this other scene– it’s a really funny scene–it’s in all the commercials, so you know it’s a highlight– where our girl-power buddy cops hang a perp by his ankles upside-down over a fire escape. And the perp is this young African-American man, who admittedly is a drug dealer who has information that our ladies need, but I found myself distracted again, unable to relax back into the film.
Oddly, I found myself reflecting on The Princess and the Pea.
We all remember the story:
There’s this prince who is determined to marry only a “real” princess. He meets all sorts of beautiful girls but finds fault with all of them– they are not “genuine” enough for him for one reason or another. Then, in the middle of a violent storm, a bedraggled girl shows up at the palace doors, claiming to be a princess who needs shelter for the night. The Queen suspects this drowned rat must be lying, so she places a pea under twenty mattresses and twenty feather-beds and then sends the girl to bed. In the morning everyone is stunned when the girl emerges looking exhausted, and complaining of bruises on her body from some horrible lump in the luxurious bed.. She eventually admits that she was tossing and turning all night long, unable to escape the pain of whatever was under the mattress. She must be a real princess, everyone decides, for only a real princess could be sensitive enough to have detected that tiny pea.
I never liked this story. It irritated me that the ideal princess was so delicate, so over-sensitive, that she couldn’t just roll over, away from the teeny pea lump, and get some rest. She seemed like a prima-donna, annoyingly over-sensitive, just indulging herself in pointless drama.
But here I found myself, unable to just roll over and settle back into a trivial summer comedy, because I’m focused on the young man on-screen, whose humanity and civil rights are being completely disregarded (to great comic effect) by people who exploit their power and authority and take extreme measures to do what they, admittedly, passionately, feel is necessary in order to protect the community.
Every time that the audience rolls their eyes at Bullock’s namby-pamby insistence on creating a dialogue with a suspect or following protocol, I find myself shifting uncomfortably in my seat. Every time McCarthy whips out her gun to get her way and says something crazy, I find myself unable to just enjoy the film and laugh with everyone else.
And I’m annoyed with myself, because I don’t want to be that girl— the one who’s so sensitive that she can’t take a joke. But still, I find myself staring into the darkness, distracted completely by my circling thoughts, like annoying lumps in my mattress that I just can’t avoid.
I have two sons. They are 4 and 6. Just little guys.
And through being their mom, I find myself deeply enmeshed in the world of little boys and all of their exuberant “boyness”. I’ve loved watching these boys at play, watching them grow up.
I love them: the way their sturdy little legs all-of-a-sudden break into a full-on run, those soft-rounded boy bellies that mark them as our babies even as they gruffly try to be cool, even the way you can make any one of them hysterical with the barest mention of poop.
I’ve smiled at these boys on the playground, at their dimples and their scabby knees.
I’ve watched them strut around the neighborhood wearing capes.
I watch them, all of them, with their scratched plastic Spiderman figures, or race cars, or random robotninjaaliens, clutched tightly like totems as their arms swoop majestically through the air and they mutter to themselves, unself-consciously engrossed in a wild, heroic adventure.
I’ve watched their eyes shine with admiration when they watch bigger boys, boys who have skateboards, and ear buds, and heavy backpacks loaded with stuff.
And as much as they are the same, I can’t ignore this nagging, lumpy difference.
A difference that I cannot get away from, though I don’t really feel comfortable talking about it.
A difference so deeply ingrained in our culture, that it can be the unquestioned foundation for a joke.
A difference which means that my sons will grow up with a sense of safety and security and a trust in authority that will not be afforded to some of their friends.
In 8 or 10 years, some of these boys’ parents will be teaching them to walk slowly and to keep their hands out of their pockets, to speak softly and keep their eyes cast down, while my boys will still enjoy the luxurious freedom of running haphazardly down Flatbush Avenue.
And though it doesn’t feel right to spend all night lying on that lump- feeling it press into me, bruising my flesh, leaving me exhausted and in pain- it is not right to just roll over and go to sleep either.
I never wanted to be a princess and I find myself really unsure of what exactly to do now.
Jack’s little body is heaving with sobs. He wails again and again, “How do I grow into a grown-up? How do I get bigger?” and he is breaking my heart.
I am changing his diaper. Potty-training Jack has been a monumental challenge, and he is resistant to even the slightest suggestion that he start relieving himself in the potty.
I am exhausted by the effort it takes to stick to my pro-potty talking points and disgusted by the foul mess that I must clean up day after day. In addition, I feel brutalized by Jack’s intense emotional response to the process. He wants the growing and maturing to be over, to just be “big” (and potty-trained), without having to experience the torment of growing.
Grief pours from him as he moans oddly,
“I want my eyes to be bigger. “
And that is when I pause, thinking all of a sudden of the oft-cited fact that children’s eyes reach their adult size from a very young age, some say as young as two, and that these “wide” eyes are what give children their irresistible look of innocence. But what does it mean that their adult eyes– shifting, watchful, careful not to betray intentions or vulnerability– are already there?
There’s a deli next to Zeke’s school– coffee, sandwiches, drinks– nothing to distinguish it from any other random bodega in our neighborhood, except possibly for one thing: this deli houses a scrawny gray and white cat. The cat skulks around, presumably to keep rodents from eating up the profits. And truthfully, even this doesn’t really differentiate it from other delis, except that for some reason, this scraggy, bony feline has completely captured Jack’s heart and imagination.
After we drop Zeke off at school, Jack invariably begs to go inside and look around for the cat. One day Jack asked the silent and watchful man behind the deli counter what the cat’s name was. The man stifled a snort and said in a lazy voice, “You give a name, and that will be cat’s name.”
Jack thought for a moment, then beamingly declared,
“His name is Catty-Cat.”
And from that day forward, so it was. We went to visit Catty-Cat several mornings a week and as Jack happily wandered around among the racks of chips and peeked beneath the coffee machine, I felt creepily aware of the alert gaze of the deli’s proprietors, tracking our every move.
In addition to the silent man behind the counter, there is a much chattier fellow, just a little taller than I am, the whites around his darting eyes huge and strangely bright. He dresses in an overly enthusiastic and dated “hip-hop” fashion, that calls to mind Ali-G.
He would always greet Jack with a vehement friendliness, often grabbing Catty-Cat out of whatever corner she was hiding in and roughly presenting her to Jack. His tensed hand would be positioned in front of her paws as he spoke firmly in her ear , and loudly encouraged Jack to pet her. He always insisted that she was terrified of everyone but Jack, whom she loved (attempts to spring from his firm grasp and escape from Jack’s clumsy little hands, notwithstanding).
Once he glanced pointedly at my wedding ring and asked me why I never came in with my husband, asked if he was “away in the army”.
Another time he insisted on giving Jack a free snack from the shop, and as Jack happily selected a bag of “butter-flavored” popcorn, that I knew I would never actually allow him to eat, he told me about his two children, pounding forcefully on his chest as he insisted that his son was “his heart” and that he loved him much more than his daughter.
He and his friend made me insanely nervous. I found myself trying to cross the street before we reached Catty-Cat’s deli. There was nothing I could put my finger on exactly that made me want to avoid it, but when we were there I always had a knot in the pit of my stomach, and I always kept a wary hand firmly on Jack’s shoulder as I hurried him through our visit and out to the safe anonymity of the street.
But Jack took such pleasure in visiting Catty-Cat and it was hard to resist the joy shining from his child’s eyes, as he placed his hand on her protruding ribs and felt her vibrating purr. So from time to time, we did stop in, though I did my best to be brusque and never to meet anyone’s gaze.
Then one rainy day, we stopped in and as Jack’s little voice called , “Catty-Cat? Catty-Cat where are you?” our colorful friend sauntered over to us and told us that we couldn’t see her because she was in the back room. I saw consideration wash over his face and saw the slight shift in his expression that indicated that he had actually changed his mind. “Wait,” he said. “I show you where she is.”
And as he ushered us toward the back room of the deli, I gripped Jack tightly and felt panic rising in me slightly. All of my adult instincts were telling me to be on alert, but a needling part of my mind told me that I might be being ridiculous, that this man had never been anything but friendly, and that there was no reason to deny a child an experience that made him so happy, or to make him feel nervous about people that had been kind to him and a cat that he had discovered and named. I wished that I could see it all with his innocent joy and wonder and turn off my full-grown anxiety.
In the back room we saw Catty-Cat. She was grooming herself, perched on a dingy, once-white vinyl dining room chair. Jack’s eyes locked on her with delight and I found myself nervously glancing around the room.
Next to the chair was a filthy over-flowing litter-box, and a giant hookah, as tall as Jack.
The room was surprisingly empty for a store room. There were a few cases of A & W Cream soda, a variety of mops and buckets and a metal drain in the center of the concrete floor. My eyes kept being drawn to a strange lofted platform that dominated the room. There were 3 or 4 crudely built stairs that led up to it and a neon-printed shower curtain separating it from the rest of the space. Through a gap in the curtain I could see a large duffel bag and a precisely made pallet, where someone clearly slept.
My heart and mind began to race as it dawned on me that SOMEONE LIVED BACK HERE– and I wasn’t sure if that was legitimately scary or not and I didn’t want the man to perceive that I was afraid and I didn’t want to frighten Jack, but I just wanted to get out of that room and back outside as fast as humanly possible.
As I led Jack back to our apartment I was struck by how profoundly differently we experienced that morning in the deli. Jack chattered about Catty-Cat and was aware only of the magic of this living being, that ate and breathed, and felt things, and allowed him to interact with it. My mind was possessed by paranoia and the potential for danger. Whose mind did it make sense to dwell in? The world is certainly more lovely in Jack’s eyes. And it saddens me to imagine his child’s vision being clouded by fear and mistrust.
My father studies Perception, and I remember him teaching me about the eye from a young age, quizzing me on of its various parts: the lens, the iris, the cornea, the rods and the cones. He excitedly explained that the brain fills in blanks so that we would perceive a clear and complete picture of what was before us.
It seems to me that this is very similar to what my adult view of the world does to Catty-Cat’s deli. I don’t understand what is going on in there. There are huge and petrifying gaps in my knowledge about the deli’s staff and why someone might live in the backroom and why someone might tell a stranger that they don’t really love their daughter, and without the benefit of a complete picture, all of my mental alarms go off and fill in the fuzzy areas with a strident vigilance.
Children are free to experience the unexplained, without that terror. We absorb all of the fear for them, tightly grip their little hands, and quietly scan the horizon for threats. In their yearning to grow up so quickly and to be independent, they have no idea that potty-training is merely the barest beginning of independence or of how incredibly sinister life for an adult can be.
We teach them to use the toilet, and to tie their shoes, and to navigate the world on their own.
And from us, they also learn to put their guard up. They have to. In order to survive, we all need to assess risks and think about the dangers that could be lurking in the places that we can’t see clearly.
But, in the moment, in Catty-Cat’s deli, as I gaze at the contented glow on my young son’s face while he caresses that skittish bag-of-bones, I don’t mind that soon I will go home and change another dirty diaper.
And I am acutely aware of a raw longing for the time when
I could wallow without fear in the simple rapture of an unfamiliar cat’s purr,
rather than being so keenly aware,
one hand on my son’s shoulder, one eye on the door.
We spent some time in a small cottage in Vermont this summer. Our children shed their shirts and shoes moments after we arrived and it was a delight to watch my two Brooklyn-born boys dart about freely in all of that nature. They scampered happily through fields, amassed collections of sticks and pebbles, scaled boulders, and explored old barns.
One evening Zeke discovered a copy of The Lorax by Dr. Suess on a shelf. It begins with a little boy exploring a barren wasteland and wondering how it came to be that way. He comes across the mysterious Once-ler, the only living being there, who tells him the story of discovering this idyllic land, once filled with adorable animals and a forest of beautiful “Truffula trees”. The Truffula trees are topped with fluffy, candy-colored foliage that the Once-ler used to knit cozy garments called Thneeds. This quickly becomes a profitable business. As the business grows, the Once-ler builds factories and chops down many, many trees, to keep up with the public’s demand for Thneeds.
As the landscape changes a small mustachioed figure called The Lorax appears, saying, “I am the Lorax and I speak for the trees.” He urges the Once-ler to care for the land so that the animals and plants can survive there. The Once-ler, who has become wildly successful, ignores the Lorax’s warnings and eventually the air and water become so polluted with waste from the factory that all of the animals are forced to leave. He short-sightedly chops down all of the Truffula trees as well, leaving his business unable to survive, and leaving him alone and broke on the land that he has decimated.
Zeke was engrossed by the story and as I read his brow creased with concern and his blue eyes grew wet and heavy. In his 4 years, he had never encountered the concepts of corporate greed, environmental devastation, or short-sighted selfishness that the story explores and again and again he asked me to explain why the Once-ler would act this way. As I read on I began to wonder if I really wanted my kind-hearted little boy to be aware of this negative side of human nature. He seemed so deeply effected by the Once-ler’s actions and by the powerlessness of the Lorax who speaks up, but can’t seem to bring about any real change.
Then we came to the conclusion of the book
The Once-ler summons the little boy closer and tells him that when the land was left uninhabitable, the Lorax picked himself up and floated away, leaving only a stone carved with the world UNLESS. He drops into the boy’s hand a tiny seed, the last of the Truffula seeds, and explains to him that UNLESS someone like him cares about things, nothing will change. He urges the boy to take care of the seed, to give it clean water and air, to protect it, and grow a new Truffula forest, so that maybe the Lorax and his friends can come back. And as I read the closing lines I could see Zeke’s mind working. He had the joyous light of hope in his eyes and my arms broke out in goose-flesh as I looked at his ecstatic expression and realized what a profound impression this book was making on him. He spent a long time flipping through it, gazing intently at the pictures, his eyes still lit with possibility.
On a sunny afternoon a few days later, we visited a nearby pond to go swimming. Aaron took Zeke out into the water, while I took Jack by the hand to explore the weeds by the edge of the pond, in the hopes of scoring a glimpse of a frog, a turtle, or a darting school of minnows.
We came across a group of children hard at work on an ambitious project. They were mostly spindly-legged boys, with sun-bleached shaggy hair, tirelessly carrying out the orders of their leader, a long-legged girl of about 12, her hair in thick brown braids. She directed them with a stern humorlessness and angry confidence that had clearly been learned from the adults in her life. She had broken her crew into two groups, each group working resolutely on the two sides of what I will call, “Project Salamander”.
The weeds by the edge of the pond were filled with little adorable, squishy, brownish-greenish salamanders who were covered in perfectly round yellow spots. Their eyes were cheerful black bulges and their mouths curved upwards into friendly smiles. If you spotted one, like a shadow beneath the water, you had to move swiftly and decisively, or it would just dematerialize and instantly find refuge somewhere in the deeper darker water.
Half of the kids were trapping and collecting the slippery salamanders in a large red sand bucket– they had nearly 20 when we arrived– while the other half were constructing a pond for them. It was about 3 feet across with thick sand walls. They filled it with pond water and artfully scattered silver-dollar sized lily-pads over the surface, presumably to make it more natural and appealing to their amphibious captives.
Jack, who declared his intention to be a zookeeper shortly after his second birthday, was immediately entranced. He watched the children excitedly and, like the boys working on the Project, he quickly grabbed a bucket and fell in line behind their leader. Under her business-like, watchful eye, Jack was allowed to pour a bucketful of water into the newly constructed pond and to hold a salamander and pet it.
“So Cue-oot!” he squealed.
When the small pond was complete the leader allowed Jack to place one hand on the red bucket as her crew transferred the salamanders to their new home. Disapproval registered instantly on her face when she examined the murky boy-made pond and the salamanders lying sluggishly at the bottom.
“NO!” she snapped. “This isn’t working! They blend right into the sand so we can barely see them! And they aren’t really moving!”She dipped an authoritative hand into the pond, “No Wonder! This water is too warm! It’s warming up too quickly! We need cold water! Now!” She snapped her fingers at one of the boys.
When the boy returned with cooler water from the large pond and poured it carefully in, a portion of the sand wall slid down into the water, further obscuring the salamanders.
“They are going to get away!” the leader shrieked furiously. “Collect them! Put them back in the bucket!” She counted them carefully as each salamander was recaptured and put back in the sand bucket.
The pond abandoned for now, she put her entire team on the job of catching more salamanders. They walked slowly and carefully into the water, holding white nets. After each step they waited for the sand to settle to keep their view of the bottom clear. When a salamander was spotted, they swooped their nets down and scooped the little fellow up before he could scoot off to freedom.
When I commented on their impressive salamander catching skills, the leader looked at me humorlessly and said,
“Where my dad lives, we spend a lot of time catching crayfish and we have become quite skilled at it. We have found that once you can easily catch a crayfish, you can catch pretty much anything without too much trouble.”
As she spoke, the boys stood carefully at attention, awaiting instruction. By now, even I was a little bit afraid of upsetting her.
As I watched this bossy, brown-eyed girl, I flashed on the camping trips that my family used to take near the New York/Pennsylvania border when I was a child. I remember supervising my younger brother and sister as we scoured the forest floor, searching for these sweet little newts that were a bright, story-book illustration tangerine. We too would collect them in buckets, which we lined with grass and sticks to make perfect little habitats for them, where we imagined they would live contentedly as our pampered pets. I clearly remember how I would love them fiercely for an afternoon, or until something else caught my fancy.
So, I was quite taken by Project Salamander. I desperately wanted to pick up the salamanders and cuddle and kiss them too, but being the adult, I felt that it was more appropriate to insist upon my children acknowledging how amazing they were.
The boys’ cousin Nathan was with us at the pond and I lured him over to the bucket with an enthusiastic awed voice that never fails to pique childish interest.
Next I moved to Zeke:
“Come here Zeke! This is SO COOL! Look at what these kids have been doing! They caught all of these salamanders and they are so cute!You won’t even believe it!”
Zeke walked over and looked down into the bucket. Immediately his eyes went dead and in an strange thoughtless sort of move, like that of a toddler with a random destructive impulse, Zeke began to tip over the bucket. A chorus of “NOOOOO” rang out all around us and someone picked up Zeke who was kicking and yelling in a desperate fury,
“No! NO! They don’t have enough room in there!
They need the whole land!”
And my confusion at Zeke’s odd effort to ruin the children’s project disappeared as I saw his deep compassion and his furious passion. In that moment, Zeke was the Lorax and he saw beyond the charming amusement of a group of children, to the suffering of the confined salamanders, who deserved absolute freedom in the vast, cool, deep water that was their home.
As we prepared to leave our Vermont cottage, an impressively violent thunderstorm materialized. Thunder shook our little cottage. Lightening flashed across the sky and rain pounded the fields. Zeke and I were inside, finishing up the packing, while Aaron and Jack took out the garbage and got our truck.
“Oh no!” I said. “It’s raining. Do you think Daddy and Jack are getting all wet?”
My little Lorax smiled at me, and said:
“It’s okay mom. I love it when it rains. It keeps the earth healthy.”
And I remember smiling back at him, a great looping love in my heart, as I held his warm little hand and we looked out together at the staggering power of the storm.
“Why not?” I asked him wearily.
“Because it will interrupt my dreams!” he shot back. “And then I won’t dream of Florin!”
“And I love to dream of Florin,” he added in a soft, sad voice.
Florin, according to Zeke, is the boy who lives in his dreams. Florin is an alien and he has a cat named Miracle who is also his best friend. Where Florin lives, the rays of the sun are fuzzy and they tickle you when they shine on your skin. Florin eats bugs and candy and he gets to play as many video games as he wants.
Florin, it appears, lives Zeke’s most awesomely, amazing dream life. He is for Zeke the embodiment of everything incredibly, marvelously spectacular and he has a “big boy” bravery and confidence that Zeke clearly admires.
I have asked Zeke to describe Florin numerous times and joy bubbles from him as he searches his mind for awe-inspiring details. His eyes turn upward and dart quickly back and forth as he talks about Florin’s amazing attributes. His voice speeds up and takes on an exhilarated tone, that makes me wish I was a child again so I could feel the awed delight that his mind gives him.
“He’s shaped like an alien. First you put a few parts on him. And then you put a lot of parts on him. He has hair that is different colors, like a rainbow. And his skin is like a rainbow too. And his boots are white. And his hat is yellow. And he has prickles all over his rainbow back that are rainbow prickles. He has a new haircut so his hair is just on his head, but before it was all the way down to his back. His eyes are yellow. His nose is shaped like a triangle. His mouth, his teeth, and his tongue are rainbow colored. He wears pirate clothes. He has the same skull shirt as me and he wears it all day and all night.”
Lately, Jack has been singing what he calls the “Lady Song”. While singing it he moves his arms slowly and gracefully. His movements are almost balletic, similar to the flowing arm movements of a traditional Hula dancer. And in a very soft, gentle voice, he will sing something along the lines of,
“Lady. Flowers. Beautiful. Christmas.”
It is always slow and quiet and soothing. He often requests that I sing the “Lady Song” (which I don’t actually know) when he wants to be lulled into sleep.
Then there is Kristin Davis. No, not the cute brunette from Sex and the City— the former “Manhattan Madam” of the glossy pink lips, bleached blonde hair, and pronounced cleavage that ran for Governor of New York State. When I am checking the mail, I frequently give some of the junk to the boys to peruse, just to keep them occupied. They will happily flip through a Land’s End catalog or look at the Phat Albert’s circular while we wait for the elevator or while I search for my keys. During the lovely Ms. Davis’s campaign we were inundated with soft focus, glamour shots of her stamped with provocative campaign slogans. One day I handed one over to Jack.
He was immediately smitten.
He gripped her head shot in his little hand. He stared at it. He kissed it. For a few weeks he would ask for his “Lady” picture before he left the house. In his seat, in the lower-deck of the stroller, he would clutch it tightly and gaze at it. More than once he fell asleep in the stroller, her photo pressed to his cheek.
I was shocked and a bit horrified by these obvious demonstrations of clear ideas about gender and female beauty that my child had developed at such a tender age. It didn’t come from me, of that I’m pretty sure. So where did it come from? Could this be nature at work?
And it’s not just Jack. Once when Zeke was about 15 months old, we rode the Q train into Manhattan pretty early on a Saturday morning. Sitting across from us were two youngish “ladies” who were wearing lots of makeup and not much clothing. They were clearly heading home after a fun-filled Friday night. Zeke was sitting in my lap while I stared into the vague middle distance, lost in thought, when my attention was caught by the enthusiastic cooing and clapping of my young son. He was mesmerized by these women. He stared intently as one of them applied lip gloss. He flirted with them, playing peek-a-boo, smiling broadly, and waving.
The women were completely charmed. They laughed and smiled back, waved at him and exchanged giggly comments about how adorable he was until they reached their stop. When they got off of the train, Zeke followed them with his eyes, waving, and eagerly shouting “Bye-Bye!”, clearly trying to extract the last bit of their alluring feminine attention.
Recently, we went to a gathering at a family friend’s house. There were two tweenish girls there. They were all braces and lip gloss, skinny jeans and flat-ironed hair, and they sat sullenly at the margins of the party, rolling their eyes, slouching and texting. As I mentally thanked the good Lord that I do not have daughters, I watched Zeke size them up and wander into their general vicinity. He lingered casually with his Lego Star Wars guys, just close enough that they just might talk to him.
Of course they noticed him. He’s an adorable, floppy-haired, pink-cheeked little moppet.
“Oh look at him! Look at those blue eyes!” they squealed. “What are you playing with, cutie?”
And Zeke went in full force, talking to them at length about the coolest possible topic he could think of– STAR WARS! It was an endless incomprehensible monologue and he shifted nervously as he described in complex detail the way he was setting up his guys and the incredible adventures they were having. My heart ached for him. I could hear, from the lowered pitch of his voice and the way he was peppering his speech with “totally cools” and “that’s so awesome, rights?” how hard he was striving to impress these girls, and as I watched their eyes glaze over and listened to their perfunctory “uh-huh’s” and as I heard Zeke’s speech drag on and on and on, it was all so painfully clear:
Girls are going to happen to him.
This little scene will be re-enacted again and again and again and his poor little heart is going to hurt, and I’m just his Mom, and nothing I say is ever going to make girls anything less than devastatingly hard.
Then one of them interrupted him and said,
“So, which one of us do you think is prettier? Me right? Don’t you think that I look just like Megan Fox?”
And instantly, I wanted to cut a bitch. Why do girls have to be so much more sophisticated and freaking conniving than sweet, sincere little boys? Doesn’t she see how hard he’s trying? Couldn’t she play along just a little bit, and make him feel good about himself?
And that was when I noticed the chocolate ice-cream painting a pencil-thin mustache across Zeke’s face. Without thinking, I automatically dipped a napkin into my water glass, walked over, and began dabbing him clean.
Time slowed as I noticed the smirks emerge on the girls’ faces and watched Zeke squirm angrily away from me. How much more uncool had I just unconsciously made my poor little boy feel? And are these the roles we are just going to fall into without thinking, moms and sons, girls and boys, awkwardly interacting until somehow self-confidence takes over for him and this stuff doesn’t feel so fraught? Or is this all just me?
A few weeks later, we took the boys to First Saturday at the Brooklyn Museum. Zeke and his Dad were off checking out the galleries while Jack and I listened to jazz in the atrium. Jack was dancing when I noticed him notice a curly-maned brunette in a cute red flapper-style dress. She was sitting alone, bopping her head to the music. He walked directly up to her, passionately embraced her legs, and exclaimed loudly,
“I like you!”
She melted instantly, beamed at him, and gave him a hug back. Then she took his little hands in hers and danced with him for the rest of the song. I glowed with joy. It felt so good to watch someone appreciate my delightful little boy, just as much as I do.
It occurred to me as I watched them dancing, that when we are very young, we are naturally sincere, but that it is not until we are a bit more mature that we really appreciate and value sincerity.
My boys are going to reach out to all kinds of girls, some of them the plastic polar opposite of what I would deem appropriate. And I can’t do much more than watch uncomfortably and assure them, if and when they’ll listen, that there are girls out there who will appreciate them for just exactly who they are. Even if that is the same corny shit that I found completely unhelpful when I was young and insecure and my Mom said it to me.
I’ve got my role to play.
First gather these materials:
crayons and/or markers
yarn, string, elastic, or a rubber band
1. Draw the shape of your favorite super-hero’s mask on cardboard, in roughly the size of your head. Your recycling bin is a great source of easy to use cardboard. We recommend empty cracker or cereal boxes. It is often a good idea to include two square tabs just above ear level to make your mask easily wearable. Cut it out. Don’t forget to include eyeholes.
2. Lay down some construction paper in your super-hero’s colors and trace your cardboard cutout. Cut out the construction paper shape.
3. Glue the cardboard and construction paper together. This is the foundation of your mask.
4. Use crayons or markers to add decorative details to your mask. Get creative! You can also add more cardboard elements to give your mask some dimension.
5. Punch holes in your mask just above ear level.
6. Tie some string in the holes you have punched so that you can wear your mask.
For optimum comfort, we recommend yarn:
Tie one length of yarn to each hole. To wear, position mask at the front of your face and tie the two pieces of yarn together in the back of your head. Having two pieces of string allows the mask to fit heads of various sizes and to tighten or loosen your mask as you desire.
For secure fit (useful when performing feats of strength or general heroism) we recommend elastic (available in craft stores, sometimes with sewing supplies in drug stores) or a rubber band that you have cut so it is one long strand:
Tie ends of rubber band or elastic to the holes in your mask. To wear, pull elastic over your head and position mask as desired.
7. Finish off your outfit with whatever accessories will make you feel the most fabulous and indestructible. Zeke favors scarves or dish towels as capes and socks worn as gloves. He also enjoys wearing a gold sequined “utility” belt which is very handy for strapping on any weapons or any important equipment (e.g. a batarang or possibly a length of rope) that you might need in the performance of your heroic duties.
8. Step out into the world, feel the wind at your front (so that your cape ripples behind you heroically), and use your powers for good (unless of course you have chosen to be a super-villain).
Zeke’s interest in super-heros began innocently enough– I mean they are everywhere when you start to look around.
Then, one day it was pouring rain outside. The boys were stuck inside the apartment with their babysitter while I frantically attempted to accomplish something and avoid their notice.
Somehow the idea of making a Batman mask occurred to me. It was nothing notable. Just one of many diversions that moms come up with all of the time to keep the peace and keep their children busy. I remember scurrying about, hurriedly gathering supplies: black construction paper, glue stick, scissors, and a Cheerios box from the recycling bin for reinforcement. Deep in the closet I found some purple yarn from a discarded crochet project, perfect for tying on the Dark Knight’s disguise.
As I searched for everything and handed it all over to our sitter, I was mentally trying to calculate how much time this diversion could possibly buy me.
The incredible thing is, Zeke wore that cardboard mask everywhere for an entire week. Clearly, something in our lives had shifted.
That week, Zeke answered only to Batman. The only way he could be convinced to bathe and sleep without wearing his mask was to remind him that when Batman was out of his costume, as he frequently was, he was just a regular guy, named Bruce Wayne. So whenever the mask was off, Zeke was Bruce.
There was something about the dual identities that was fascinating to Zeke. As he became captivated by other super-heroes, the first question he would ask was