Posts tagged “identity

Growling Friend and The Boy

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“Looks like we are too late for Growling Friend today.”

 Jack and I are walking down Rutland Road to his school. Two girls from his class, who we met on the train, skip along the sidewalk with us.

 “Who’s Growling Friend?” one of them asks.

 “Well, “ I say. There’s a man who delivers fruit to two of the stores along Rutland and every day, when Jack and Growling Friend see each other, they put their arms up in the air like big Grizzly Bears and growl at one another.”

 “That’s weird,” the girl says.

 “It is kind of weird, “ I say. “But it’s great too. We look forward to seeing Growling Friend every morning.”

 And it’s true. It’s just not the same when we don’t see him.

Growling Friend is a middle-aged Asian man, glasses, mostly bald with some shaggy grey and white hair around the sides of his head.  We see him every morning, unloading boxes of fruit from his white truck, when we descend the steps of the Sutter Ave. 3 Train. And if he unloads slow enough and we walk fast enough, we see him again, further down Rutland, making a second delivery.

One morning, in a surreal non-verbal mental communion, both Jack and this man put their arms up in the air, tensed their hands like menacing claws, bared their teeth and began loudly growling at each other.  

I was taken aback.  It is extremely unsettling to have some random stranger growling at your child, unprompted, on the street.  But before my Mama Bear took over, I looked at my son, who was giggling with delight. I looked at the man, whose face glowed with jubilant mischief.

You could see the playful little boy inside his aging face, and I knew there was no need to be afraid. Without a word, the man went back to stacking boxes of mangos and papayas in front of the store and we continued down the road to school.

And just like that, our weird little morning routine was born.

Every day Jack and the man we now called Growling Friend would catch sight of one another, menace and snarl for a moment, and then just pop back into normalcy.

All of the Spanish guys who helped bring the fruit from the sidewalk into the store used to smile and laugh when they saw us coming.  Passersby would laugh and shake their heads when their haze of business was momentarily penetrated by the strange sight of a little boy and an old man raising their hackles in mock threat, for no apparent reason, on the street.

After seeing us, the man would always beam, his smile warming our backs as we headed down the street.  And if I caught him making his second delivery on my walk back to the train, he would always wave effusively, and I felt strongly that we shared a kind of odd friendship.

 

Jack’s friends wanted to know more.

 “What is his name?”

 “Well, I don’t actually know.  We don’t even know if he speaks English.  It’s just that every morning he and Jack just growl at each other and it’s so silly…”

 

You don’t know his name?” She glared at me accusingly. “ So he’s a stranger.”

 

“Well, yes, he is a stranger. But we see him every day and when he growls at us it’s so silly and we feel happy…” I was sputtering. I could see how absolutely bizarre this story sounds, even a four-year-old is questioning my parental judgement.

 

Jack interrupts,

We don’t know his name. We just know how kind he is.

 

And that is exactly it.  Jack just instinctually understood this man’s kindness, no matter how strange a manner he had of putting that kindness out there.

 

I thought a lot about this.  Do I want my son, in pre-school, walking the streets of Brooklyn sizing people up and just following his intuition about them?  Do I instill in him the belief that adults know best and that you should think and act as they think and act?

Should I teach him to go with his gut or to follow my lead?

And this line of mental questioning led me inevitably to The Boy. 

There’s this Boy in our neighborhood that we see around a lot. We frequent the same coffee shops and playgrounds. We have many mutual friends.

One day, probably 2 years ago, we saw The Boy at the playground, zooming some toy cars around on the top of the water fountain. Jack climbed onto the water fountain to get a drink, interrupting The Boy’s game.  Just as I was thinking of mother hen-ishly reminding Jack to say “Excuse Me” or something, The Boy pushed Jack off of the water fountain and calmly went back to playing with his cars.  

Jack lay on the the ground screaming, both knees raw and scraped.

I picked Jack up, bounced him and comforted him. I saw The Boy’s mother looking anxiously in our direction and when she came up to us and asked what happened, I told her calmly and somewhat apologetically, what I’d seen. I was sure that she would insist on The Boy apologizing, thereby restoring Jack’s sense that all is right in the world.

She crouched down and spoke quietly to her Boy, nodded decisively and walked up to Jack and me and said, as if daring me to challenge her, “He says he didn’t do anything.”

 I was somewhat startled, but weighing my options, basically fight or flight, and seeing that Jack was basically okay, I cowardly decided to retreat and let The Boy have his cruel way.

A few months later, we found ourselves walking down Lincoln Road toward Flatbush just a few steps ahead of the Boy and his mother.  I felt very aware of their presence behind us and was very aware of ignoring them. So I felt my whole body shrinking as I heard Jack say loudly , 

 

“I know that Boy.
I know his name.

I hate that Boy.”

 

I cheerfully chirped something about how we shouldn’t say mean things about people and about how we don’t really hate anyone and doubled the speed of my steps, pulling Jack forward, imploring all of the forces of the universe to make him stop speaking.

 

We managed to avoid any awkward encounters with The Boy until fairly recently, when we ran into the Boy and his mother with a very good friend of Jack’s and her family. When they asked the Boy’s mother and me if we knew each other, we wore matching vague smiles, and both muttered similar noncommittal things about how we were sure we’d seen each other around.

 Jack, however, was not as inclined to be polite.

 

He fixed a venomous gaze on the boy, his eyes narrowed, lip curled in a hateful sneer.

 

“I know you.” he snarled.

And then he spat on the ground.

 

There was no way that I could warble something that would brush away the absolute contempt that Jack had just expressed. And feeling bound up in politesse and helpless to deal with the situation, I took Jack by the hand, said something along the lines of , “Okay. See you around.” and dragged him down the street and away from our awkward social interaction.

 

And now I have to ask myself.  If he can just intuitively find a kindred spirit in his Growling Friend, should I just trust him to decide that the Boy is his enemy?   Is it my responsibility to teach Jack to be neighborly and well-mannered or is that essentially just teaching him a form of socially conventional spinelessness?

What it seems to come down to is this– do I want him to be himself, true to his instincts and confident about his feelings, or me, a shrinking violet, desperate not to rock the boat? And the answer seems to be the former, even if his exuberant flowering can sometimes make me want to wither on the vine.

The world is full of Growling Friends and Boys. We don’t know all of their names. But, as Jack has taught me, if we look closely and trust our instincts, we can see their kindness or their cruelty.  And we can respond accordingly.

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Arachnophobia

When Jack was about 6 months old and Zeke was 2 1/2, we spent a week at a family friend’s house in upstate New York, in the small town of  Jeffersonville.  We spent our days doing things that, to most, might have seemed pretty routine, but  to boys used to city life, our vacation was exotic and exciting.  When we drove along the long winding roads, we saw cows and horses, and tractors parked on people’s lawns, wonders that caused Zeke to point out of the window and exclaim with excitement.

We could grill our dinner in the backyard, and sit on the porch to eat it. There was an old barn across the road, and each evening from our spot on the porch we would marvel at the hulking turkey vultures that would lurk ominously in the open hayloft.  

When the sun set, we chased fireflies.

One evening, we attended a free outdoor concert by a community band. Local people assembled either in front of the local firehouse in a hodge-podge of lawn chairs from home, or on the grass next to a brook. A woman walked through the audience with a basket of  garlic sprouts.  Zeke looked at her like she was crazy when she handed him one, and she gave me a pretty similar look when I asked what exactly we were supposed to do with them. (They were apparently meant to repel mosquitoes.)

One sunny afternoon we walked down the road to the town library, where Zeke confidently asked the children’s librarian for all of the books she had about tractors. On another we wandered over to the brightly painted ice cream stand where Zeke ecstatically covered his face in vanilla with rainbow sprinkles. 

Even the screen door was fascinating to Zeke.  He would swing it open and walk out, wait for it to latch, and then push it open and walk in.  

For hours.  

He’d never seen anything like it.  It allowed him the independence to walk in and out of the house without any assistance, something that he never gets to do in our double-locked Brooklyn apartment, with it’s locked front door, and it’s elevator buttons high above his head.

And on one bright morning, I noticed something else that we don’t have much of in Brooklyn.  About halfway up the stairs, fuzzy and brown against the cream-colored wall, was a really large spider.

Growing up in upstate New York, I remember running into spiders pretty frequently.  Their webs would brush creepily against your face in the basement.  One might skitter across the floor unexpectedly, causing my mother to shriek.  

I remember admiring their webs in the sun and in the fog and I also remember destroying them with sticks and gleefully watching when the poor arachnids came scurrying out to repair the damage.

But in Brooklyn, I don’t see too many spiders.  We have roaches galore.  I’ve run across some funky centipede-y bugs, a surprising number of snails, and I’ve even had ants.  But spiders, not so much.

So when I saw the rather large specimen on the wall in Jeffersonville, I got excited and I really wanted to share it with my son.

“Zeke! I want to show you something really cool!” I said.

He was immediately sucked in, “What is it?”

“Come with me, and I’ll show you.  It’s a really big spider!  Wait till you see it!”

Zeke followed along gamely and sat with me on the steps.

“See!” I said excitedly.

The spider sat motionless on the wall, the size of a half-dollar at least.

Zeke looked at the wall blankly. “Where?” he asked, anticipation in his voice.

“Right there.” I pointed at the wall.

Zeke cocked his head in confusion.  “Where is it?”

I was a little confused about what was confusing him, but ready to wow him with incredible Nature, I took a pencil out of my pocket and  pointed right at the spider, causing it to run jerkily up the wall.

As soon as the spider moved, Zeke’s eyes went huge and blank.

He clamped his hands over his ears and he began to scream.

 Again and again.

  I said his name, “Zeke?”

But he didn’t answer, just rocked back and forth,

gripped by blind terror, lost in a bloodcurdling primal scream.

 

I was stunned and terrified by this reaction.  I had never seen my child in a state of hysteria, and it had certainly never occurred to me that the spider I so eagerly pointed out would tap into some kind of instinctive gut terror.  

I grabbed his shoulders and shook him, called to him “Zeke! Zeke!”

It took endless seconds for his eyes to refocus and for him to respond. I said nothing about the spider or the screaming and just asked him weakly if he wanted to go outside and play.

About a week later, when we were safely back in Brooklyn, I tentatively asked him about the incident.  

“Hey Zekie,” I said, “Remember when we saw that spider in Jeffersonville?”

He shook his head, a bemused look on his face, “That was crazy Mom.” he said.

“You were kind of scared of it, huh?” I said casually, not wanting to reignite the fear, but also deeply curious about what had been going on in his mind.

“That was so crazy,” he said shaking his head. I nodded in agreement and smiled, trying to project as forcefully as possible that it was no big deal.

And here is where it became clear to me how skillfully the human mind can wall us off and protect us, how our memories can be re-formed to make them safer and to distance us from things that are too difficult for us to bear.  I still don’t entirely understand his reaction, but I guess a part of me is really glad that he was able to transfer his fear and disconnect from that terrifying moment.

Zeke said to me, his eyes wide with disbelief:

“That spider was screaming and screaming and screaming, right Mom? Why was it so loud?”


Perception: The Apple of My Eye

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 upThey 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.


The Big Ooh

Lately, every night it’s the same thing:

Mommy, close the door,” Jack whines, “So the monsters can’t get in.”

I don’t know where this new fear has come from.  I can’t put my finger on exactly when it started, or what it is that sparked it. All I know is that now it has become routine to make a show of closing the door securely so that Jack feels secure enough to relax into sleep.

I was lying in my own bed, watching the shadows of the passing cars drift across the ceiling, contemplating Jack’s new fear and whether or not it was worth being concerned about, when in a flash,

I recalled The Big Ooh.

I can still see Zeke laying in our bed, his little hands clutching the blanket tightly, where it was tucked beneath his chin, eyes wide and staring.

Mommy,” he would say, in a whisper. “I saw The Big Ooh again.”

We live in a building that is right off of Flatbush Avenue, a busy street in Brooklyn, where it is never truly dark or  completely quiet.  Aaron’s bicycle hangs on a hook near the ceiling and and as the cars rush endlessly by, headlights shine over handlebars and through the spokes of the wheel, creating patterns of light and shadow, which ebb and flow endlessly past.

Zeke watched the shadowy shapes roll across the ceiling night after night, and to him they became something alive:

The Big Ooh.

He was vague on the details of The Big Ooh.  He seemed less frightened by her than intrigued.  He told us that she had red eyes and that he only saw her at night because during the day she was busy “taking care of her children”.

And, with a jolt, I remembered something else too.

When I was a little girl, there were these “people” that lived under my bed.  I wasn’t exactly afraid of them, but I was always very aware of their presence and that awareness made me a little uneasy.  I’m not sure if I ever mentioned them to anyone, but I have very vivid memories of lying awake in bed thinking about them and being almost paralyzed by my profound awareness of their presence. I remember taking deep breaths and resolving to be brave enough to hang my head over the side of my bed and peek down at them.  It would take me a while to summon the courage, and my glances were always brief and breathless.

 They would lie with their backs to me, their stomachs on the floor, heads propped up on their elbows.   They were fuzzy and gray; shadowy. They looked as if they were made of fog and hairballs and dust.  And I knew they were under there, but I also knew that they would never come out.

My memory of them is as vague as their lazy silhouettes were, but they remain one of the oddest and most exhilarating memories that I have, because my rational adult mind tells me that they couldn’t possibly have been under there. But I still remember them.

I saw them.

And I never had an “Aha” moment where I realized that my overactive imagination was spinning dust bunnies or lost socks into mysterious lethargic beings.  Their presence was never explained away, and I can still remember the way they looked, the way I saw them as a child.

I have since asked Zeke about The Big Ooh and he has no memory of her at all.  I suppose that whatever Jack imagines is lurking behind the door will fade away too.

And as they grow and their childhood fears disappear, so too will the world where magic is possible.  Danger will be all too unavoidably real and even a door that is firmly shut will not make them feel safe.

As their mom, I desperately want to protect them from any and all danger, and to keep them safe within my tight and reassuring grasp.  

But there is a part of me that wants them to hold on to the indistinct creatures of the night, somewhere deep inside, even if they can’t really believe in them anymore.

To remember that once, you believed.

That is a gift.


Florin is so money!


I placed Zeke’s dinner neatly on his plate.  He glared at me, his face radiating disgust. “I can’t eat that!

“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.”

 Zeke once told me that Florin had 8 arms, 10 noses, and 3 eyes.
 
Florin entered our lives right around the time that Zeke first entered a full day school program. His anxiety over this transition was huge and unexpected and took over our lives for several weeks.  
Zeke had trouble sleeping during this time.  On nights before he was supposed to go to school he would keep himself up until 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning, sobbing and clinging to his father and me, begging us to let him stay at home.  He would wake up hysterical in the middle of the night, moaning again and again,
“Why didn’t you come and get me Mom? I wanted you to come.  
I cried and cried for you.
And you didn’t come.
The moment he opened his eyes in the morning, he would ask  “Do I have to go to school today?” If the answer was yes, he would work himself up into such a nervous frenzy that he was red-eyed and exhausted by the time that I dropped him off.   His teachers would hold him close in their laps so that I could leave. They would hug him and whisper softly in his ears.  If I ever turned around to look at him, the desperation that I saw in his eyes and the wild grasping of his arms as he reached for me filled me with the most savage crushing guilt I have ever experienced.  Each day the sound of his cries for me would follow me down the hall and out of the building.
 I tried not to look back.
And then, one day, when I was picking him up from school he said to me, as usual “Tomorrow, when I wake up, will I go to school?”
“No,” I said, self-consciously trying to sound as nonchalant as possible.
“Oh,” said Zeke, seeming relieved.
Then he added casually,  “Florin’s Montessori school is right next to his house and when he goes outside he can see his house and his Mom anytime that he wants.”
“Oh?” I said.

From that day on Florin became a regular presence in our lives.  We heard about his house on “Toilet Street” in Brooklyn, (“But not our Brooklyn, on our Earth. It’s an alien Brooklyn and it’s very far away on another Earth.”)  We heard about how his mom didn’t make him clean his room and how she let him brush his teeth with maple syrup.  We heard about how Florin’s dad was not allergic to cats and how Florin’s cat Miracle had pink, yellow, black, and white fur, and sleeps in his bed with him.  We heard about Florin’s first day at kindergarten, a school for very big boys, and how he missed his mom, but then met kids that were fun to play with, that liked to go to the zoo with their babysitters and to play Star Wars, just like him.
And as we got used to hearing tales of Florin and his alien exploits, the crying and the anxiety about school slowly disappeared.
Florin continues on as a fixture in our lives. When Zeke came along with me to Jack’s most recent check-up, where my poor little peanut had to get four shots, Zeke’s eyes were huge and frightened as he watched intently what was being done to his little brother, and he told me afterwards about how when Florin got ten shots he didn’t cry at all.  He told me recently, his voice lowered and slowed to increase the drama of the statement, that Florin has a Lego Boba Fett and a Lego Jango Fett and that
none of the pieces are missing.”

Girls! Girls! Girls!

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.

 



The Many Faces of Zeke, Part II: The Heroic Age


Zeke’s interest in super-heros began innocently enough– I mean they are everywhere when you start to look around.

On vitamins. Band-aids. Toothbrushes. Cereal boxes.
Right at his eye level.
Calling to him.
Who is that cool-looking masked man?


He’d see some brightly colored unitard-wearing guy on something and we’d tell him who it was. So he knew basically who they were. He knew their names. Was familiar with their various outfits. But I certainly never felt like a particular emphasis was placed on them in our lives.

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.

The Heroic Age had begun.

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

“Who is he when he is not in his costume?”

As we became familiar with Peter Parker, Carter Hall, Matt Murdock, et al (Thank goodness for Wikipedia!), Zeke’s obsession grew deeper and deeper. New masks had to be made as Zeke discovered new heroes. Before nearly every excursion, capes needed to be safety-pinned to his shoulders, body armor and gloves fashioned from discarded cardboard and socks.

I remember quite clearly the frustration of childhood, the feeling that nothing was in your control, that you were always subject to the whims of those practically-minded grownups.
So when I watch Zeke assume the mantle of power from behind an old Wheat Thins box covered in paper, a dishtowel fluttering behind him as he zooms across the playground, I feel like I am doing a good thing for him.
His various identities make him so happy and so uncommonly proud. If only it was so simple for all of us. If only it could be that simple for him forever.



The Many Faces of Zeke, Part I: It all started with a mouse named Coopie

Part I: It all started with a mouse named Coopie…


Sometime over this past winter, Zeke started pretending to be a baby mouse. Coopie, as Zeke called him, loved to snuggle, making little nests of the blankets in our bed and burrowing squeakily down into them. He spoke in a little squeaking voice and spoke frequently of his desire to be “warm and cozy”. He was small and frightened and always wanted his mama mouse (me) to hold him and keep him “safe”.

Soon afterward Zeke invented Ming-Kang. Ming-Kang is a “tiny baby cat”, and the most developed of Zeke’s many identities. When Zeke is Ming-Kang he is absolutely committed to his character. He speaks in a combination of pantomime and meows, resorting to a high-pitched little voice, only when he is unable to get his point across wordlessly. He will only eat food that I tell him is some concoction of mouse. He loves for me to hand him invisible little pretend mice, which he excitedly slurps down. He crawls around on all fours. He lays in my lap and purrs. When Zeke is Ming-Kang, I am Bonko, the “mama cat”, and Jack is Grink.
When Ming-Kang first appeared on the scene, Zeke would spend days at a time inhabiting his cat self. If I called him “Zeke”, he would rub his face against my leg, and meow quietly to remind me who he was. Lately, when Ming-Kang has to pee, he asks me in his kit-squeak voice to accompany him to the litter-box.

One day, he and a friend returned to our apartment after a trip to the park with his babysitter. I knew that Zeke was being a cat because I heard the meowing from the elevator shaft. When the doors opened, both boys were crawling and mewing, but it quickly became clear that Zeke was much more serious about being a cat than his buddy.
I made macaroni and cheese for lunch that day, which Ming-Kang only agreed to eat when I told him that is was “mouse macaroni and cheese”. This announcement gave Zeke’s friend pause.


“It’s not really mice is it?” he asked me, looking concerned, and totally dropping character.
“No,” I said. “We’re just pretending that it is.”
“Why?” he asked, clearly a little confused.
“Because you’re pretending to be cats and cats eat mice.”
“WHY?” he asked, more emphatically this time.

I didn’t really have an answer.

I have no idea why my son wants to spend much of his life as a cat.


“Because it’s fun,” our babysitter helpfully replied.
Ming-Kang smiled angelically and nodded in agreement.


Living life as Ming-Kang has made Zeke have to think a lot about the differences in values that make us different people. One day, Jack was wearing dinosaur pajamas and Ming-Kang pointed quite deliberately at the smiling T-Rex on Jack’s chest.
”What’s that?” he asked.
“A dinosaur.”
“I don’t like that,” he said in his Ming-Kang voice. “I only like gentle things.”
This is, needless to say, not the opinion of my 3-year-old human son, who sometimes comes to stay with us.

Conflicts between your identities are complicated, and can be distressing for anyone, let alone a three-year-old. Once, while I read stories to him in preparation for bed, Zeke turned to me seriously and asked, “Mommy, is Ming-Kang going to eat Coopie?” He had this uneasy, mournful look on his face. He loves both characters so much, I think the realization that they might not co-exist peacefully was genuinely distressing for him.
“No,” I said in my most comforting voice.

Ming-Kang is Zeke and Coopie is Zeke, so as long as we have Zeke we will always have both of them.”