Category Archives: being grownups

Dial it down, for the kids’ sake

When I was 11, Ronald Reagan was president of the United States. My sixth-class teacher felt strongly that we should all have a grasp of current affairs, and every morning she’d pin her newspaper up on the blackboard and have us all gather round and look through the headlines. She was a formidable woman with a strong social conscience, and CND and Greenpeace and Amnesty International were all hot topics at the time, though in spite of her efforts I personally wasn’t always exactly clear on why exactly they were in the news.

What I remember most vividly, though, was our fear of Ronald Reagan’s finger hovering over the nuclear missile button, pointed at the USSR, with Ireland right in between the two.* Nuclear fallout wouldn’t respect Ireland’s official neutrality, and we would have no say in the matter. I don’t think I was alone in that fear – there was that Genesis video a year later, for instance – but I suspect that as children my class’s understanding of the facts and the likelihood of certain things happening might have been skewed a bit. The idea of a massive nuclear blast that would wipe out half the world, followed by a long slow nuclear winter that would horrifyingly put an end to the other half seemed like an inevitability more than a possibility to me for several years. It felt like a future we were all just politely ignoring, pretending wouldn’t happen. For quite some time it felt like a when, not a remote if.

Children have no control over the greater world around them. They hear and see more than adults expect them to, and they take in information in ways that adults can’t ever quite predict. They get scared irrationally, by things that don’t exist and things that pose no threat – and they get even more scared when the adults around them are anxious, worried, angry, and letting fly about things that nobody explains to them.

I am all for explaining things to our children, and showing them that we have strong emotions too – but I also think we should let them be children as long as possible. Their lives are full of small problems, childish worries, surmountable anxieties that look really hard from their point of view. Let’s not give them our big worries as well. Their shoulders aren’t ready.

In other words, limit the agonizing, grownups. Stop making Trump sound like the end of the world. Dial down the hyperbole at the dinner table – your kids don’t understand when you’re exaggerating for effect. They take what they hear you say as the bald truth, not melodrama because you’re that kind of person. Lie to them a little if you have to. Soften it up. Tell them everything’s going to be fine – that the government has checks and balances so that no one person can have all the power. That politicians never keep their campaign promises. It might even be true.

Help them sleep at night. There’ll be plenty of time for stark reality when they’re older.

*In hindsight, I suppose his nukes might have pointed west rather than east, to reach the USSR quicker. But then they’d be travelling over US soil. Unless they started from Alaska. Okay, I don’t know which way they’d go.

Birds in blue sky

Birds, not missiles

 

Decade

Ten years ago in the last few days of August, the B and I put our four-month-old baby in the Corolla and started the drive from southmost Texas to Maryland, two years after we had first driven all the way there from Pennsylvania. In many ways, driving back north felt oddly like going home, even though Maryland is technically below the Mason-Dixon line (and therefore still in the South, unlike Yankee Pennsylvania). Texas was pretty alien. I’d only lived in Pennsylvania for 18 months before that, but B had been there a whole PhD’s worth of time. Maryland felt reassuringly familiar.

Lone palm tree by the water looking over at buildings in the distance

Buh-bye, Texas

We’d rented a place to live, sight unseen, which is always a horrible way to go about it. It was not very close to B’s new place of work, because we were assured that we didn’t want to live in that particular county. We should live one county over, where it was – I don’t know, nicer, safer, more expensive, something. In retrospect this was a bad decision because with B driving the car off to work every day I was left trapped in the apartment, in walking distance of one set of shops but nothing else. Every day I pushed the baby up to the supermarket, took a look in Sears, stopped at Starbucks if he was either cheerful or asleep, and back home. He’d fall asleep on the walk back, but often wake up when I tried to get him back inside, which involved one flight of steps up to the front door and another down to our basement-level apartment.

Baby having his toes dipped in the water on a long beach

Hello, Atlantic Ocean

I didn’t meet anyone while we lived there. I don’t know who our neighbours were. I didn’t make any friends. I tried to find a moms’ group but the only one I could find was about 30 miles away. We went once, making a game effort, but it was too far. It was lonely, but it was temporary, because we’d only rented that place for three months.

At the end of our three months we were more familiar with the area. We moved to a condo across the road from B’s place of work, in the dodgy county, where rents were lower and everything else, as far as we could see, was exactly the same. (We hadn’t encountered the school system yet. That’s where the biggest difference lies.) But for me, it was the beginning of actually making a life here rather than just pushing the baby around on my own, day after day. I had the car: I could go places. I found the library. I found the community center. I found a local group of moms and dads that met at the playground every Wednesday. I found my space.

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Baby’s first DMV historical site. (George Washington’s birthplace in Virginia, where we stopped for… lunch, or education, or something.)

But ten years. If you’d told me then, as we drove the highways north of New Orleans, along the Gulf shores of Mississippi and Alabama – communities still reeling from Hurricane Katrina the year before – through the panhandle of Florida, into Georgia and up along the coast of the Carolinas, that we’d still be in the US ten years later, I’d probably have demanded that we move home straight away. This was not the plan. (This is why nobody should know the future, even if it’s perfectly good.) The plan was another couple of years in the US and then home to Ireland to buy a house and settle down and send the baby to a nice Educate Together school if possible and be perfectly normal Irish people.

We still have the Corolla, but we have a Subaru too, because we’re true suburbanites now. We bought a house that’s still close to B’s work, but not where they’re out dealing drugs on the stoops. (Apparently that’s what went on in our second rental’s neighbourhood. I had no idea at the time.) Some of the friends I made that first year are still my friends, and their kids are my kids’ friends, and we’re all Americans now. (Even B. has a citizenship application in the works at the moment.)

Oh, we still have the baby too. Sort of.

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*****

I nearly forgot to mention my new stickers. I’m delighted to be shortlisted once again in the Personal Blog – Diaspora category of the Irish Blog Awards – but there’s a public vote element to this round. If you’d be so very kind as to click through here and take a moment to log in (sorry!) and vote for Awfully Chipper, I’d be eternally grateful.

Blog Awards Ireland 2016 Vote Now Button

Mawidge

We were at a wedding last night, and, as I somewhat effusively told the happy couple, it brought out all the feels.

It was really a milestone event, because it’s the first wedding we’ve been to where we’re “of the older generation.” As B is the baby of his family, he and I are the youngest of our rung on the ladder, and the nephew getting married is the oldest of my kids’ cousins, so the gap in years might not be a whole generation’s worth, but symbolically it remains true.

It was also my first non-church wedding. It took place in a hotel, just like in the movies. At first I thought it might be a little soulless (I’m such a hypocrite, an atheist who says it’s not a real wedding if it’s not in a church), but I cried just as much as I ever would at the lovely self-written  vows, and as a parent of two squirmy, unreliable children, I very much appreciated the tidy length of the ceremony. And it was nice not to have to worry about transporting ourselves from the ceremony to the reception, as all we had to do was step into the elevator and out again a floor above.

Also, there were babysitters laid on, so that we were able to send our children away to play raucous games of musical chairs and do crafts while we were civilized and ate our dinners and drank all the fizzy wine and danced to the Sinatra songs they played not intending people to dance to them. Our offspring did come back to us after a little while, but we enticed them onto the dance floor and ended the night with all four of us tearing it up to Uptown Funk at 11:30pm. That was a good moment.

These moments of ritual, though. Those were what got me thinking. The bride had a little trouble getting the groom’s ring over his knuckle; I remember exactly the same struggle and the same nervous giggle welling up when it happened to me. The groom is a marathon runner, like his uncle. She and he are two strong, determined, uber-smart people who will go far and do amazing things together.

A wedding date is really an arbitrary day to start counting from when you’ve been living together for a few years already; and yet, it’s important. This is why.

It’s important though, to mark this, to stand up, to have the planning and the party and the ceremony and the drama that goes with it all, because in some ways it’s one of your first challenges. It’s a time you’ll go through, and then you’ll look back and remember it at every other wedding you go to: we did this too, you’ll say, or we didn’t do that. And you’ll think about all you’ve done since, the twists and turns your lives have taken together, the glue that holds you together, the ritual and the symbolism and the flowers and the dances and the meals and the friends and the family.

And most of all it marks the point where you started out together to be a new family of your own, breaking free from everything you wanted to let go of, no longer forced into your role as son, daughter, sister, brother; the over-achiever, the stubborn middle, the baby of the family.

You get to go out there and be yourself, with your teammate, grownups together, to dance your dance to your own soundtrack whatever way you want to do it.

B and children dancing, blurry

On the dance floor

Paris, with several asides and explanatory notes

Terrible things happened in the world when I was a child. I know they did. Some I heard about and many I probably ignored, though the radio news during the day was always listened to and the nine o’clock news religiously watched. They didn’t affect me. I didn’t ever think ‘There but for the grace of God’. I didn’t wonder if such a thing might happen to me or the people I loved. Those things all happened far away and to other people, whether they were in Ethiopia or Turkey or Enniskillen.

But now, it’s so hard to ignore. Is it worse, or am I just older? I hope the latter.

(Clarification: Maybe I did worry. I worried about nuclear war. I worried about planes falling on my house. I worried about my cousin’s flight being hijacked when she went back to Australia. But I didn’t worry about famine or bombings or shootings.)

I have no particular ties to Paris. I spent an exciting day there with my French exchange and her family when I was 16 (they lived in Dijon, quite a distance from Paris; I think we went there on the way to the airport before I flew home), and a lovely weekend with B in my mid 20s. Horrified and appalled as I am at the attacks, it doesn’t feel right to me to paint my Facebook profile red, white and blue in honour of France, when so many atrocities in other parts of the world go unremarked. By me, by the American media.

(Note: I really don’t want you to think that I mean you shouldn’t have done it, if you did. I’m just explaining why I haven’t.)

I wonder what my grandparents felt, watching the world ramp up to the second world war. What their parents felt the generation before. The world is so different now, and yet apparently we haven’t evolved past the urge for violence. I don’t understand these people.

(Aside:
I don’t understand them because I wasn’t raised in poverty or oppression or desperation, like they were. Nobody put a machine gun in my hands when I was five and showed me how to use it. Nobody killed my family in front of my eyes. Nobody drove me from my home and raped me.

(Aside to my aside:
I know those are not the only people doing these horrible things. I know some of them come from perfectly comfortable backgrounds with loving parents in Western countries. I don’t know what to say about those people except that they’re young and impressionable and suffused with misplaced idealism.))

I wonder if I’m overreacting. I wonder if my grandparents wondered if they were overreacting.

(Note: One set of my grandparents were in London. These are the ones I’m thinking about specifically. They would have been about my age when WWII started, with children a little older than mine.)

Last night I took Mr Rogers’s advice and thought about the helpers, in a measure of self-preservation. This morning I see pictures of people queueing up to donate blood, stories of the French soccer team who stayed with their German opponents rather than going home, a pianist playing John Lennon. The French haven’t forgotten. They know how to be at war, and how to do it with dignity and courage.

Important Note: I don’t want anyone to be at war.

Jullien Eiffel Tower peace sign with flowers

Image credit Jean Jullien via The Body Shop, as far as I can find out. Please contact me if you added the flowers and I’ll be happy to credit you.

Home from Home

I arrived home from Home, if you get my drift, leaving all-too-real reality to be plunged straight back into also-real reality with barely a moment to catch my breath. It’s mind-bending to have to comprehend that both realities go on independently whether I’m there to see them or not, it really is. I mean, you can know it rationally, because it’s true; but actually believing it is a leap of faith.

One night’s sleep, and I was straight back to parent-teacher conferences and PTA meetings and generally picking up where I left off, with some added phone calls to make to the other side of the world where, allegedly, everything went on just as before.

You might be finally grown up when you walk into your childhood home and it’s just a house filled with stuff where two old people live. You might have finally switched allegiances when you know that home is where the family you made is, not the family you came from. You might feel spit in two, or all at sea, or strangely small, when it’s just you on your own for a while, missing your usual noisy distraction of an entourage. Or you might be too busy getting things done, because you can move around a lot faster on your own, to really dwell on the existentialism of it all too much.

I brought back with me birthday presents and teabags and Penguin bars and chocolate and new socks from Dunnes Stores and a golden snitch fob watch from a little shop in the George’s St Arcade which has already had its chain broken three times. I brought responsibilities and resolutions and numbers to call and questions to answer. I brought my trusty notebook and my laptop, at opposite ends of technology, neither of which I can do without.

I was there, and now I am here. Why is it so hard to understand?

Boats sailing inside the harbour.

Sailors out. Dun Laoghaire harbour with Howth in the distance.

 

 

Thin skin

I think I’ve lost a layer of skin since I had children. Or maybe having children had nothing to do with it; maybe I just got more empathetic as I got older. But when I listen to the news these days it’s as if someone has taken a potato peeler and removed whatever defences I used to have when I heard all the terrible things: “It’s not here.” “It’s not me.” It’s not my family.” “It’s nobody I know.” “It couldn’t happen to us.” They don’t work so well any more.

Maybe it’s just that things keep on happening, and my radius increases as time goes on, so that “here” spans a lot more than just the town I grew up in, and “us” includes a lot more people than just me and my parents. Maybe it’s that the law of averages indicates that some day it could just as easily be me, or us, or here, as anywhere else. Some parts of the earth may be less prone to natural disasters, and some parts of the state may see less crime than others, but as my mother would tell you, you could leave the house tomorrow and walk under a bus. There are no guarantees.

But even when I’m not appreciating how lucky I am, and wondering how long I can reasonably expect that luck to hold, those other people whose luck has run out seem closer now. I don’t want to hear about them; I certainly can’t let myself think about them. Imagining my way into their skin is not something I’m going to begin to try to do.

The news is more real, maybe: when I was a child it may as well have been fiction. I wasn’t sheltered from the news as a child. I remember earthquakes and hijackings, shootings and bombings and stories about terrible things happening to children. I remember being more upset about stories of mistreatment of animals than of people. My mother was shocked when I mentioned this, but my rationale was that animals can’t ever speak up for themselves. I suppose I didn’t know about all those people who can’t either, for so many more complex reasons. I was scared of the house burning down, mostly, or random robbers coming to steal – I don’t know what, we had an eight-inch black-and-white television and my mother had costume jewellery. I didn’t know about all the other things there were to be scared of.

Mabel looks at my face sometimes and asks me why I have lines on my forehead. She thinks they’re funny. She wonders why she doesn’t have any. I pretend not to mind them, and tell her matter-of-factly that as you get older your skin doesn’t bounce back so much, and so the lines show that I’ve been smiling and frowning and making other funny faces for lots of years now. I make her some funny faces and she laughs.

My skin got thinner because I used some of it up, making two amazing people and smiling and frowning and wondering and worrying about them. So I suppose it’s not going to stop any time soon.

Maud and Mabel making faces

Squid sandwich (not actually a food post)

While on the outside, this week has been about snow, and concomitant school closings and late openings, on the inside for me it’s been about having a back problem. Not that my back is any more painful than it was last week or the week before – in fact, since that first visit to the chiropractor it’s been a lot less painful in bed at nights, and the rest of the time about the same; a twinge here, a nudge there, bending at the knees not the waist; doesn’t everyone’s back hurt when they sneeze?

No, I suppose everyone’s doesn’t, but this has just snuck up on me so gradually that it really felt pretty much normal. Not something I should be whining about and certainly not going looking for medical intervention over. The chiropractor and then the nurse at the MRI both asked had I done something to it – an accident, I suppose, is the most common reason why someone relatively young like myself (don’t shatter my illusions) would need such treatment. But there wasn’t anything. It just sort of wore on.

I didn’t think I was fretting about any of it overmuch, but the night before the MRI I had that classic anxiety dream that my teeth were falling out. I was brushing them vigorously and then I leaned over the sink and several enormous molars just popped out. I thought “This is a dream thing. Maybe I’m dreaming.” So I poked a tooth to see if it would wake me up and it didn’t. I was disappointed but not very surprised, and annoyed that now I’d have to go and see the dentist as well.

The MRI was fine, though it did go on for EVER – they made me as comfortable as I could be while lying on my back and I listened to NPR on the headphones, which was moderately distracting, and every now and then I’d feel my shoulders and hips tensing up and I’d have to consciously relax. The noise wasn’t as bad as I’d anticipated after all the warnings from kind readers – I think if it’s an MRI on your head maybe it’s a lot louder.

Afterwards the tech showed me on the screen where the dark shape of my cartilage was pushed out on either side of the vertebrae in the affected area. I had been envisaging it like a sandwich with the jam pushing out on either side, but of course cartilage is solid stuff so it’s not dripping away into the rest of my interior; it’s just sitting there and maybe being squeezed a bit more as time goes on. I have no idea what they do with that, and so far I haven’t googled to find out. I’m sure someone will tell me soon enough.

B suggested I should envisage the cartilage more as a squid, but I said it would have to be one with no tentacles. So now I’m seeing the head of a squid sandwiched between my two wholewheat vertebrae and wondering if it would just break in two and drop off on either side at any point… but it’s probably connected to the bone better than that…

At least I still have all my teeth.

Back issues

Sometimes, like when I decided to move the blog – sorry about any broken links, by the way; still working on figuring out the redirects – I take action remarkably swiftly. Other times, not so much.

For instance, she said ominously:

I’ve had a vaguely sore back for a while. I put it down to carrying a heavy toddler, and bending the wrong way, and having children jump on my back for the pure hilarity of my reaction whenever I happened to be crouched down doing something, and all those things that you do in life. I certainly didn’t have a car accident or fall off a horse or crunch someone in a rugby tackle. I kept assuming it would wear off after a while. It would come and go and some days I’d be gingerly loading the dishwasher sideways because I couldn’t bend straight forwards and others I’d be fine. Lately it had taken the form of a sore back that would appear after a few hours in bed, bug me enough to wake me up and make me painfully change position, and make me hobble like an 80-year-old getting up in the morning. But by midday or sooner it would have worn off and I’d put off doing anything about it. Again.

When I had my annual doctor’s appointment in October or so I had mentioned it to the doctor. She was supremely unhelpful and said I could find some exercises to do for that on the internet. I basically ended up thinking that I was 40 now and maybe that’s just how life is. Or that maybe we need to buy one of those nice squishy mattresses that you can rest your wineglass on without fear of spillage while a rhinocerous jumps on the other side.

At some point – actually, I know exactly when it was; it was when we went to Ithaca last July – we drove past a building that said “Acupuncture, Chiropractor” and I wondered why those two would go together. In my mind, a chiropractor was a special and important and very wonderful type of doctor who did something that was not clear to me, while acupuncture was sticking needles into you, which might somehow help but was definitely on the alternative side of the medicine scale.

This set off a long train of thought that buzzed away in the back of my mind over months and months. I began to notice that the two types of practice often went together, and that chiropractors were definitely also in the “alternative medicine” box, in this country at least. Maybe it’s different in Ireland, but I know my parents used to speak in hushed tones of the revered chiropractor. (My mum had had a bad back many years ago, and my dad had a badly broken leg in 1971 that has given him pain on and off ever since.) I always assumed the chiropractor was just as much a doctor as a surgeon or anyone else in St Vincent’s would be. Maybe he was.

So it gradually began to dawn on me that maybe I should take my back to a chiropractor. But if they’re alternative, then does insurance pay for it? And will they dupe me? Maybe they’ll pretend to fix it but actually only partway fix it so that I have to keep coming back.

Eventually, I asked my local Facebook friends if anyone could recommend a chiropractor in the area. They could – several mentioned the same one. I put that at the back of my mind, because Ireland, and Christmas, and everything else. Every night in bed as I winced and rolled over, I would resolve to make the call the next day; every morning I’d put it off because now I was fine, and it’s not so bad, and I have an irrational disinclination towards making phone calls.

Finally, in my fit of proactivity on Wednesday, I called up, and they took my insurance details just like any regular doctor’s office and gave me an appointment the very next day.

Of course, Mabel decided that Thursday morning was the time to throw a fit about going to school, or staying for lunch, or whatever she could sling at me, and I was working so hard at promising her that I’d consider thinking about letting her skip lunch the next day that I left the house without my wallet. So when I’d hurriedly peeled her off me and left her wailing at the feet of her teacher, I was not only consumed by parental stress and guilt but also had to rush home to pick up my stuff before trying to get to the optimistically scheduled 9:15 appointment.

I got there only a few minutes late, filled out all the forms in the world, had some interesting tingly electric massage thing, talked to the lovely man about my back – feeling a bit of a fraud since on the 1-10 scale of pain I hadn’t called it more than a 3 at its worst (but then, as a friend pointed out, once you’ve given birth without an epidural, the pain scale sort of shifts and it’s hard to tell what’s considered bad) – and he did some interesting maneouvers on my hips. (Phwoar.) He also took some x-rays, just to make sure there wasn’t anything funny going on with my bones, and told me to come back this morning to discuss the results.

I wasn’t convinced anything useful had happened, because nothing felt any different. And then in the middle of the night I roused a little and wondered at my lack of pain. I wasn’t feeling anything. I turned over with the greatest of ease and not a wince in sight, and went happily back to sleep. When I woke up I got out of bed like a 20-year-old and did not have to creep in an elderly manner to the bathroom as I usually do.

“I’m cured!” I announced, with jazz hands.

So I went back to tell him he was a miracle worker, and he showed me my x-rays, which demonstrate an odd lack of cartilage between the bottom two lumps (technical term) of my spine. Not none at all, just much less than there is between the other ones.

“So, it hurts because there’s actually something wrong?” I felt somehow both vindicated and utterly amazed. How strange that my body manifests a problem with pain. Huh.

So  now I have to go have an MRI next week to see if I have a bulging disc or a herniated disc or I have no idea what else it might be but I probably shouldn’t google it. Ever had an MRI? What should I expect?

And I suppose I should have gone and done something about this sooner, but on the other hand I’m glad I did it eventually instead of just believing that once you’re 40 your back starts to go and there’s nothing you can do except maybe buy a new mattress and yell at the kids to get off your lawn.

 

Some days are better than others

Some days I am on top of the laundry, and some days the laundry is on top of me.

Some days a blog post comes to me fully formed in the shower. Some days I have to hiccup it out like a cat barfing.

Some days I go for a run or do a whole exercise video and then saute kale for lunch. Some days I stop after five minutes and have a muffin instead.

Some days my children climb trees and run outside and I show them how to make leaf rubbings, and feed them meals that have components from each of the food groups. Some days they sit in front of the TV for too long and get a waffle and five frozen peas for dinner.*

Some days I am fired up with efficiency, and the kitchen is clean and the dentist appointments are scheduled and the new season’s clothes are sorted and I am superwoman.

Some days I’m not.

I think the key is not to give up after one – or many in a row – of the off days. Just keep swimming.

Autumn leaves on a page

*Obviously, I’m talking about Mabel here. For Dash, eating from all the food groups means a peanut-butter sandwich and a juice box.

Inter-

We went to the theatre a while ago, my husband and I. Say it the posh way, thee-ate-er. We left the children in the capable hands of a babysitter and took our cue to pretentiously discuss Beckett and Joyce on the metro into town. We even had a drink before the show. We’d never have had the audacity to book ourselves tickets for something like that – a real play, at night, in the city, no less – but we’d won the tickets so we had to go.

It’s been so long since I’ve been to a live production of anything other than a tantrum being thrown that I’d forgotten all the things that make theatre such a different experience from a movie, even though on the face of it you might think they’re much the same. This was a great example, though: a very intimate production, in the round, so that watching the audience opposite us react was as much part of the play as watching the actors. And being so close to the protagonists that you could reach out and touch them as they went by (if you wanted to; of course, I would never do such a thing) and admiring the grace and speed with which the actors moved the sets and props around between scenes, like a dance.

I love those moments when they’re between selves; they’re not quite in character yet, but they’re about to be. The curtain call is the same, of course: it’s the actors, not the characters, who are bowing to our applause. I strained to see if I could hear them speak as they went by, because the play was done with British accents and I’m sure the actors were American – but I didn’t catch any hint of their real selves’ voices to lift the veil a little further. I think this is why I love the blooper reels on a DVD so much: it’s not just because they’re funny, but because we see the actors being themselves just for a moment.

—————

I am between selves at the moment, I think. With the kids in camp for six hours a day, parenting is not the immersive experience it has been and will be for the rest of the summer, but I’m not quite sure what else it is I do; other than rush around getting last-minute things I might need for BlogHer. Once I’m there, I’ll be a new self, or an old self – a new old self, perhaps. A professional amateur blogger, doing whatever it is such people do, in the company of many many others. A writer among writers, or a mommy-on-vacation. A woman among women (and some men, but not many, I’d say), without children.

Just me, Sheryl Sandberg, the Pioneer Woman, thousands of other women, and Queen Latifah too.