A Boy and His Transmogrifier

For Christmas, Santa brought our six-year-old boy the classic tales of another six-year-old boy (plus a tiger): "Calvin and Hobbes." And oddly, he was not enchanted, like, immediately. Calvin and his tiger Hobbes moved around the house for a while, our six-year-old boy assiduously ignoring them both. They lived on the coffee table, the most obvious place I could find, they lived on his bed next to numerous books about disasters on the high seas. Somehow, my son resisted cracking the spine.

I found this almost intolerable--knowing what's good for him, after all--and decided to take things into my own hands. One night I just started reading it to him even though he was bouncing around the bed (much like Calvin) and acting out (much like Calvin) and refusing to go to sleep (much like...). And then, just like that, he was transfixed.

First we read it together, but I think my dramatic interpretation wasn't good enough for him. He couldn't devour it quickly enough with me acting out all the parts, so he began to read it to himself while I sat next to him in bed, me staring at the ceiling while he would scour each page and start tittering. Eventually, he didn't even want me there at all, which is a big (not unwelcome) change.

We have a thing, he and I: the nighttime rituals. Often there's a book, unless he's dawdled himself right out of one, me nagging about brushing his teeth, and always a nighttime chat. It's been this way forever. Now we just have the chat, because Calvin and his tiger Hobbes have captured his imagination with a devotional zeal that makes me beam with pride but off the hook for almost any other responsibilities.

About a week into his obsession, he began asking for a transmogrifier just like Calvin's. The Transmogrifier is a cardboard box that Calvin climbs under, and comes out transformed into whatever flight of fancy has taken him: multiple Calvins, jelly monsters, a tiger much like Hobbes himself. So my husband, always indulgent when his boy is excited about something, ran out to find the best transmogrifier Craigslist could buy. He found it at an appliance store: the biggest refrigerator box I've ever seen.

Our son got a transmogrifier so large my husband had to chop it down by a couple of feet. It stands like a mighty fortress in the middle of his room, and he put his bean bag chair in it so it became a Plush-mogrifier full of the comforts of home. It's so enormous that he and a parent can lounge relatively comfortably, though he wants no such thing most of the time. He's begun decorating it with stickers, a poster about spies, and a hand-crafted bookshelf that he and his papa made one sunny afternoon.

And because Calvin reads by flashlight, we've given him one on permanent loan so that, come bedtime, he races upstairs, darts into the transmogrifier, puts on the flashlight and starts reading Calvin and Hobbes before I've reached the top riser. I hand him his toothbrush and some jammies, and he hands me his used toothbrush and pants (or sometimes just tosses them out like a puppet show prop), I tell him I'll be back in twenty minutes and he barely glances at me.

That's it.

No muss. No freak out. No dilly-dally-wishy-washy-can't-focus-two-seconds-to-get-his-damned-jammies-on.

That boy loves his transmogrifier, but more gratifying is how much he loves to read about it. We can hear him guffawing to himself at some joke that only he and Calvin share, and it is one of the most heartwarming sounds to hear: the sound of independence.

I'm a little sad that I'm not completely involved any more. Not really, but wistful. A little tender.

On the other hand, a whole precious half hour has been returned to me in the evening. And I know that we must invest in the collected works of Watterson now, but it might not be enough to satiate our son's ravenous appetite. I wonder how Watterson would feel about starting the strip back up?

Sometimes a Thing is Just a Thing, and Sometimes It's Some Other Thing Altogether

We have a happy little nuclear family, all things being equal. My husband and I had our son when we were past our rather exciting young adulthoods, and were married seven years before we heeded the call to breed. It allowed us to create a perfect landing spot for parenting: we had fulfilled our craving for adventure in the outside world and we were more than happy to start an adventure in our house, no regrets. And parenting, despite the fact that parents like to complain, a lot, is the best thing on earth. No amount of sleeplessness, poop, puke, peculiar interests, illness, or chaos theory personified can take away the fact that you love the little dickens beyond any amount you ever conceived. Well, we do, anyway. I suppose there are plenty of families where love is not the over-arching theme, but I’ll continue as if that inconvenient fact isn’t true.

But when we were considering the question “One or More Than One?” we were really, really tired. Skull crushingly, crazy-making, profoundly tired. This remains true, but we’ve either learned to operate under war-time sleep privations, or we were actually even more tired then than we are now, which makes my brain hurt. But since I’m really tired, I’m not sure which it is.

Regardless, the decision: One or Two. Do we have the one remarkably awesome kid, and carry forward in our happy little triad, lovey and schmoopy and trinity-ish? Or do we take the chance on the sperm roulette wheel and see what happens? We discussed this when we were tired, as I said, but also in the realm of the expiration date: I was in my late thirties and my husband was in the brilliant age of sagacity.

But we never made any plans. Time passed. We slept little. Suddenly, we had an older boy, and it seemed we had made our decision by not making any decision at all: we were going to have a singleton, an only child, and remain our little triad. He’s six now, and amazingly more amazing than when he started. We’re a nice group, us three, sleeplessness and all.

•   •   •

I’ve been trawling the pet listings at the Humane Society website for a couple of years now. It’s casual, like browsing the bookstore when I’m not really looking to buy. I check out all the critters to see what’s around. I write little cultural criticism articles in my head about where their names come from. I look at them all: old, arthritic pooches with seizure disorders, spastic pups who clearly would run circles around me and terrorize my family within a week. Really sweet looking dogs who just look like they need to catch a break.

I would like to give them that break, but I’ve never been a dog person. I grew up with cats, every last one of them strays until our last two girls, which we picked up from the pound. Our four-year-old son had just experienced the death of our two cats within five weeks of each other, and I felt we couldn’t wait for new cats to stumble into our lives like all the other ones had. He should be exposed to the lively, fun beginning of cats, not the depressing, sickly end of kidney failure. I was pretty finished with having a pet at the time, but the house was lonely without our critters, and we felt disconnected without them. Plus, happy young cats rescued from the pound; makes you feel snuggly in your inner bits.

My husband wasn’t really interested in the cat thing anymore, either. Sometimes you’re just tired. And as I’ve mentioned, being tired is the one thing we are almost all the time. Plus, no cat was going to measure up to the cat he had just lost to kidney failure; she was his cat made in heaven, one of the weirdest animals we ever had the pleasure of knowing. So he politely tolerated my reasoning for getting the new cats, and agreed to it because he’s pretty indulgent of both me and the boy, but he could have just as easily not had pets for a while.

I guess I’ve been trawling the pet pages sort of on the sly. It’s not like I announced that I was stalking pooches in my off hours. I mean, I cruise Amazon too, when I’ve already exhausted all the other stupid internet novelties I’m accustomed to, and just need to fill in that last half hour before bed when I’m watching some crappy police procedural out of one eye.

It goes in stages, too. Months of no dog trawling go by, and then something will tap my inner dog alarm, and I start looking again.

Most recently, my inner dog alarm was set off on the beaches on Sayulita, Mexico. So many Americans were walking though the little village with their dogs. Imagine! Trotting down the beach in a foreign country, and you’ve got your buddy, your pal. Not that I actually think I’m the sort of dog owner (in the hypothetical, of course) who is going to pack a dog in a box and bring him to a foreign country, but there they were, tourists out for a jolly walk with their pooches.

And the little frail dogs of Sayulita, the stray wanderers and beggars who make themselves at home where-ever, whenever, and with whoever moved me. One sweet terrier adopted us on our patio (we all resisted feeding her, because we knew she’d never leave) and then walked with us through the town, until some other person caught her fancy and she left as unromantically and pragmatically as she came. But we walked three whole blocks together, and I thought it was pretty cool.

Once we returned from Mexico, I can say with not 100 percent accuracy but a pretty good educated guess, that the first dog I looked at was a Pomeranian named Baby Carrot. I’ll admit I’m partial to the name. But I only looked at two dogs that day (I’m glancing at my browsing history, and browsing histories, when you're as lazy as I am, don’t lie) so it's clear I wasn’t feeding the fire yet.

But soon I was hitting the dog listings on the Humane Society website pretty often, and then cruising PetFinder to widen the search parameters. I was researching breeds on DogBreedInfo.com, to see what breeds (in the hypothetical, of course) might suit our family. Nothing large. No herding dogs, because to break them of their herding instinct around our tiny flock of chickens would be cruel to all parties involved. Papillons were awesome, an ancient breed which look like bats, which is a plus, but I worried about their frailty around our six-year-old, who, gentle soul that he is, is still six.

I could go on and on with what I know about dogs. I have been thinking about their training. I’m concerned about its canine instincts meshing in a house full of evolutionary adversaries or prey. I don’t want a Jack Russell terrier because I think they’re smarter than me.

I mentioned in passing to my husband that I had been thinking about a dog.

Seriously, he should have known.

We’ve been together long enough that he should know that if I’m saying it out loud, something is in play. Something big, like an iceberg. Something not particularly interesting on the surface, but huge and ponderous, the relatively benign sentence, “I’ve been thinking about a dog” deceptively innocent, while there’s this lurking, hulking beast waiting quietly, submerged in a placid open sea.

My husband has made clear in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t want a dog. He does not want a dog. He has told me many times, has itemized all the reasons thoroughly and completely, in triplicate, and delivered the message to all parties. No dog.

So what have I been doing for two years?

•   •   •

Our son is amazing. He’s this funny kid who at six has an uncanny ability to absorb historical and geographical facts and recite them as if he’s already writing the book. If you would like to know about the Lusitania or the Titanic, their similarities versus their differences, he can tell you. He’ll throw in the sinking of the Mary Rose if you’d like. He once used this stunning ability for car facts and figures, but he tapped out after we went to the LA Auto Show in December and decided he was ready to move on to disasters on the high seas. That was it. He was done.

He fits in this eccentric little family very well. But he’s just a kid, and we can’t debate the finer points of history all the time; there are plenty of opportunities for him to mouth off, be a pain, jump on us like a monkey, run into us like a tiny Brahma bull, and smack our butts as hard as he can because he’s completely impressed with all the other kids at school who do it to their parents. So we have the onerous job of correcting his behavior and trying to foster a certain civility, membership in the world, and detracting from his continued descent into Lord of the Flies. He has a lot of friends who he can tumble with, smacking their butts while they chase him and drag him through the dirt. All the stuff he wants to do with us, but we’re too boring and old to get behind it.

And a lot of his friends have siblings. They not only channel all their six-year-old exuberance toward my kid, but each other in this super-sibling-y way that I’ve never experienced. And it’s great; often our son is a unifying force between the siblings, or he’ll bond with one while the other wanders off for a while, and then with the other in an interesting exchange. But the siblings so clearly have each other that even when they’re ready to kill each other, it makes me sad for my kid who only has us, the grumps who don’t want their butts slapped.

And we’re intense. We’re interested in things in deep, intense ways, we love intensely, we debate intensely, we laugh intensely. We don’t mean to, but we protect him intensely too. And we probably have intense expectations because the little whipper snapper is so damned smart. But there are two of us grown-ups, and one of him. Sometimes all our intensity is focused on him alone, two beams of parental interest impossible to distract. It must be rough staring up at us sometimes, feel a little lonely.

•   •   •

We went to a birthday party for our best friend’s son who turned one last week. Their big, sweet dopey dog Otis played endlessly with our son, tossing a slobbery disgusting ball back and forth, back and forth, Milo giddily happy to have the undivided attention of someone so energetic, someone so easily pleased to do exactly what he wanted to do. Otis never tired of the game, and neither did our son.

I told Lars that I had in no way set this up ahead of time.

•   •   •

I’ve been cruising the dog listings about two years, around the time when I realized we weren’t going to have another kid. In any case, the chance for our son to have a sibling close in age was gone. Now any sibling would be so much younger, our son might be a mentor, but not necessarily a peer. It was that way with both my husband and myself, our own siblings years and years behind us. We never shared friends, never shared schools, never shared secrets in the watches of the night under the covers, giggling and bitching about how much our parents sucked.

We also never fought with the ferocity of siblings, and never had to learn the necessity of negotiation, sharing, compromising. We were pretty much on our own, but also autonomous. I’m not sure complete autonomy is a good idea; people need people, and we sort of learned how to go it alone.

Our relationships with our siblings are solid, but not like that bond that develops from going through the war together. I love my brother more than anything, but we didn’t have that kind of relationship. I know there are also those sibling relationships which suck almighty reams of giant donkey ass, but again, I’m going to continue on as if that inconvenient fact isn’t true.

•   •   •

Apparently my subconscious has been working deeply for the last two years on the conundrum of the great sibling debate, working itself out in the dog listings. Because it was clear we were never going to get a dog; my husband made sure I knew that he was not interested in that at all. It was a hobby.

But this is probably akin to people being curious about seeing a real live hooker for the first time, not to, you know, DO THAT, but just because, like, it’s so seedy and I want to see. Slumming it. Being a tourist through the underworld. So they ask someone where they can find one to look at, then drive by the streetwalkers, staring, and are thrilled in a weird way. How did she get there? What’s her story? Is she particularly gifted? This leads to Craigslist to look more deeply, just because, you know, they’re intrigued. And some of the ads are really, like, super-specific. And interesting. And, wow, just…wow. I mean, it’s all right there in front of you, all the weirdness you never knew existed explained in vivid detail; not only that, ON OFFER. So, like, um. Why not?

Yeah, that’s me. So when I mentioned to my husband that I was thinking about a dog, he had no idea of the enormity of the iceberg underneath the surface. He didn’t actually know that I knew more facts and figures about dogs than most people I know who own dogs. He had no idea that I had narrowed down selections, that I was pretty interested in rat terriers, that nothing over 25 pounds would be making it through the door. That I had found a number of very interesting possibilities. That I was particularly fond of a dog named Rhea, a spaniel mix who won me over with her cream colored coat, bat-like ears, and two pictures on the Humane Society Website which worked their way into my heart just like a flesh-boring-insect, one where she was lying down with her head between her paws looking up at the camera as if waiting for me specifically to come to her rescue; the next one where she had hopped up, alert to greet me, and so excited that she was finally going home.

In an alarming epiphany I realized that I was planning on going to the Humane Society just to, like, you know, visit. I also discovered that I had not even discussed this with myself much less my husband, that I had been operating on the purest instinctual level. I had been searching and trawling and looking high and low for a companion for my son for two years, and I didn’t even know it. I had been looking for a sibling analogue, an animal who would unconditionally love him no matter what, who wouldn’t reprimand him about his potty talk, who would hang out with him when everyone was tired, who would play catch with him and run with him for hours, with whom he could find solace when Dad and Mom were just being too damned intense.

I finally showed Lars the depth of the iceberg which he was unwittingly bearing down upon. I explained myself. I knew he was completely taken off guard, since he thought I also didn’t want a dog. I mean, we’re cat people, right? But in the conversation was the admission that our ship has sailed, and it is without a sibling for our son. We’ve never marked the passage of that milestone, and it’s very sad. We were too tired and we let time decide for us. Now, no sibling.

Rhea got adopted soon after I revealed the iceberg. I looked up the Humane Society website again, and she wasn’t on it anymore. I cried. I cried because she was gone, but I also cried because we hadn’t realized the importance of bringing our son a companion into this world, who was his friend and adversary, his partner to rumble with, a person with whom he could collaborate against the two bigger people running the show, even if it was just under the covers at night, giggling. The adult in the future who he could bond with over the struggles of dealing with their nutty parents when we’re too damned old or sick to be anything but a pain in the ass.

We’re a trinity: The Father, The Loon and Holy Smokes. But I wish we had had the foresight to realize that quadrangles are more stable.

•   •   •

I've looked at the Humane Society website a few times since Rhea was adopted, but without any real enthusiasm. Once I realized that it wasn’t just a dog that I wanted, my heart broke a little bit. I’m mourning for what hasn’t happened.

Sometimes a thing is just a thing, and sometimes it’s some other thing altogether.

Hazard Insurance for Social Calamity

The obligatory social functions one is committed to once you have a child are difficult for shut-in's like myself. If I was childless, younger and spoke completely off the cuff, no problem: my outbursts might be confused for joie de vivre and risqué spiritedness. Instead, I often feel I'm on the verge of ostracizing myself from the parental community. But worse, since he's somewhat defenseless and completely at the mercy of elementary school rites and rituals, I fear at any given kid-centric event I just might put the nail in the coffin of any future social prospects for my son. And because I have a distinct flair for standing out, this comes with a high amount probability. It's for this reason that I need social hazard insurance: in case of social calamity my son will be protected in the future.

If I had had such a policy, it would have come in handy the other day.

We were at a birthday party in a gymnasium. The kids were scrabbling about, and the parents took refuge away from flying balls and the high velocity scooter-derby by huddling en masse by the coats, making chit-chat. Those honed in the art of chit-chat know the unwritten rules: be funny but not too bawdy or challenging; and: leave no evidence for others to use against you later. For those of us who are not artful in following these simple rules, every social exchange becomes fraught with the potential for disaster.

As acquaintances known to each other only through hallway encounters while waiting to pick up our kids from school, we parents often reminisce about parental misadventures. At this particular birthday party, we swapped stories about our wicked, wicked tongues, cases of dropping F-bombs in front of the kids. I have a particularly keen awareness of this problem since "Fuck" was one of our son's first words. Each parent shared a gem of parental folly. We laughed and commiserated. We bonded over our shared experience. All was right with the world.

•  •  •

I'm what you could identify as a hopeless optimist. Hopeless because no matter how often it's proven that something is a bad idea, I'm optimistic that it will really work out. This is a contradiction which works in mysterious ways in my life: On the one hand it convinces me that I can learn how to design and build chicken coops which would stand up to the most rigorous building inspection (and succeed), while on the other it convinces me that I can make things happen which, no matter their nostalgic, romantic, tender-hearted nucleus, are destined to meet some comic demise.

With this fatal flaw in mind, you will perhaps be kindly when I recount this tale.

When my son was about three, the depth of his obsession with transportation began to make itself clear. He taught himself to read, not because we helped him, not because we gave him reading aids, but because he loved trucks. Before he could read the logo, the "X" in FedEx was the first letter at his disposal. "X!" he would shout from the back seat as we drove through town. "Ecccccccckkkkkkkkkks!!!!" flinging his arms wildly to get our attention. "X! X! X!" in case we hadn't seen it yet. When FedEx pulled up to our house, it was as though heaven reached down and blessed him, his eyes traveling over each logo with piety and amazement.

And we're indulgent of his passions, so even though my husband and I don't know anything about vehicles other than how to drive them (it was a near thing for me; I didn't learn until I was 25), we encouraged his interest.

It was his love of conveyances which inspired a little journey to the zoo. But this time, rather than drive there we were going to go on the MAX train, which was the special highlight of the trip. We would park the car, toodle to the zoo via MAX and have a lovely day after experiencing the wondrous joys of train travel. A trip on the MAX? It was ideal. There was even an "X" in its name.

Armed with snacks, distractions and a stroller, we began our journey.

It became evident that I was unprepared for this trip as soon as we approached the stop. The train was already there, and I was pushing the empty stroller while encouraging our son to keep up. But he had spied a public fountain which was far more enchanting. The train came and went, our son transfixed by the jumping arcs of water near the homeless wanderers and early-morning winos.

It was just as well since I hadn't figured out how to use the inscrutable ticket kiosk and the map of train stops. It would be a poor start to the day if we were to make our first stop in the wrong direction, and then get the boot for not having a ticket. Keeping a hairy eyeball on our son and our stuff, which I had to set down while struggling with the bills and change I needed, I finally conquered the beast and we were armed with correct fare.

And we waited.

Apparently, the train we had missed was the last one for twenty more minutes. I had a bunch of crap, a stroller, and a curious son wandering back to the fountain surrounded by men sleeping on the benches. I struggled desperately to make him less interested in the water, which he would soon be wearing, surrounded by the men who he would soon be waking. If this was the set-up for anyone else, they might have taken the hint: Today is not the day.

But I do not take hints; I soldier forward. And eventually the train came, its sliding doors opening wide to ferry us to our destination, that mystical pixie land called "Zoo."

It was a nice trip, I suppose. We probably saw some animals. But because this story has less to do with the destination than the journey itself, I remember none of it. Except the moment when I realized we needed to leave. Immediately. For my son has the same curse as myself: low blood sugar-insanity in extremis.

We all get a little tetchy now and then when we're hungry, but my son and I turn into Class A certifiable nutjobs. And once the horse has left the stable, we're in it deep. All my snacks and baubles and happy-MAX plans were now hanging in the balance at the tips of the extremely frayed nerved endings of a crotchety three-year-old. He was over it. He wanted to go home.

But we had to take the damned train back.

Now my plans revealed themselves for what they truly were: Beelzebub's secret designs to make my life more interesting. I stuck this fire-brand of a tot back in the stroller and ran to the Max stop, praying that no matter which train came first it was the one that would magically transport us back to our parking spot all the way across town. I was dropping my shoulder bag while folding up the stroller to load on the train which had just pulled into the station. It was crammed with passengers, and I was unable to work the stroller up the steps while holding my son. I was fumbling wildly, the pressure of hasty passengers around me, and practically threw the stroller under the train just to get rid of it while flinging the angry three-year-old Grumpasaurus up the steps. Feeling utterly inadequate to rise to my task, somehow I not only kept a hold of the stroller and my bag, but my son too. Somebody, perhaps recognizing the desperation in my face, gave us their seat.

I sat down, tried to pull the stroller in close to my feet to leave enough room for the standing passengers, and hoped that the train trip alone was enough to soothe the savage in my lap until we reached our car, thirty minutes away across town. And it seemed to work. The train worked its mojo upon him, becalming this cross wild thing with the manifold pleasures of public transportation, which, through his eyes, I saw in a whole new light.

There was no shortage of things to poke or pull. The bell to request a stop beckoned him with its brightly colored tape. The bars overhead with their jolly handles enticed him to stand and jump for them, though they were tantalizingly out of reach. The passengers around me didn't look at me with parental recognition and compassion, they glared at me as though I was a terrible mother who couldn't keep control of her brat. Then they looked away to gaze impassively out the window.

The doors opened and closed, picking up more and more riders as we approached downtown Portland. The passengers became more interesting. The train car was filled, people pressed together hugger-mugger, all looking up and away from each other trying to maintain that polite symbolic distance we're all fond of. I was struggling to give them more room, sitting on my bag, mashing up my stroller, grasping my son.

I was distracted momentarily by the stroller having been kicked into the aisle when I felt the eyes of all the passengers fall on me with a new intensity. I looked around to divine what they were looking at, but couldn't find the source of their interest. I puzzled at the faces of the passengers to find some clue to the mystery while a voice was speaking over the intercom. I couldn't understand what was being said.

"Do you need help, ma'am?" I finally heard it, and whipped my head around looking for someone who needed aid. I gazed up at the operator, perched in a little glass enclosure above us. He was looking directly at me, scowling. "Do. You. Need. HELP, ma'am."

My son had found the emergency button and was pressing it with delight. And why not? It was bright red, right in reach above his sweet little face. It practically called his name it was so perfect. It reached out and beckoned him like a siren's song, "Come to me, little boy, come play among my bells and warnings, let's play together and laugh..."

I bowed my head in humiliation. "No, sir, I'm sorry, sir." I begged in my expression for everyone to forgive me my scandalous inattention to the basic tenets of public transportation, pleaded through my eyes that I was a novice, a rank amateur, lost in the jungle of rush hour traffic. There was little compassion staring back at me; the train had stopped for me and me alone during rush hour on a hot, packed afternoon.

Thankfully, a blessed distraction offered itself once the train started moving again and the passengers went about their business of looking anywhere else but each other: a woman started babbling incoherently across the aisle from us. She was in her forties and wore her age in the rough lines etched into her face. She was edgy and twitchy, mumbling angrily to no-one in particular, which was fitting since everyone was doing their best to ignore her.

Everyone except my son.

Because he had not been educated in the Art of Public Transportation, he was unaware of the subtle rules and regulations of ridership and did not know the cardinal rule: Do Not Engage the Crazy Person. For him, she was by far the most interesting thing on the train. He stared at her with open-faced, earnest curiosity as she mumbled and sizzled, waves of crazy juice oozing from every pore. She was other-worldly to him, and it showed on every inch of his sweet innocent face.

She must have felt the beta-waves from Universe Number 10 beaming from my son, because she turned to face him...

•   •   •

I was recounting this tale to the parents at the gymnasium birthday party. We had reached the crescendo, the high point of the story.

"She must have felt him look at her," I continued. "She was getting louder and louder as she looked for her audience. She turned around, looked him in the eye and said..."

I paused for effect, pointing into my tiny audience with a menacing finger, recapturing the moment with Oscar Award conviction. "'Yeah, I killed my whole fucking family, and I'd do it again, too!'"

But I was pointing directly at a newcomer who had just stepped into our group, and her expression was devolving precipitously from sincere interest as she approached to see what all the fuss was about, to sincere shock as I my final words trailed off and I lowered my finger from threatening her further.

A blanket of abstract embarrassment fell upon the faces of my audience, much like those of the people on the train who could no longer ignore the wacko menacing my three-year-old. Except now I was the wacko, verbally assaulting an acquaintance, a woman I already struggle to make polite conversation with because we have so little in common, a woman who is a leading member of the PTA and, of course, the gatekeeper to all social engagements with her son, who is my son's good buddy.

"She was describing an encounter on the MAX," a friend explained after a long two seconds of silence began to oppress us all equally.

"Oh," the woman said.

Someone else volunteered, "We were talking about dropping F-bombs..."

I looked sheepish. "I was talking about a crazy person who was yelling at my son," I said. "I didn't mean to point, um, at you." I paused. "Or threaten anybody, of course."

Kaff.

Conversation stuttered a bit, choking along while our group foundered about looking for the new thread of shared experience. Our latest member, who I had just terrified by threatening the murder of my whole family, gamely came up with some unsurprisingly tame story about her son using "damn" for the first time. Then, in some silent compact, we all agreed to move on to some other subject.

•   •   •

For people like us, those of us only comfortable in our own skins with the people closest to us, who guarantee a level of forgiveness that we just can't expect from the greater society, these innocuous child-centered events fill us with terror. Birthday parties are always another opportunity for me to publicly but inadvertently threaten bodily harm to someone, or out myself as a complete social basket-case by saying exactly what I think to exactly the wrong person.

So when you meet "me" at your next school event or child's birthday party, that person who is funny right up until the point when they raise the stakes just a little too high, have mercy on them and realize that they suffer far more greatly than you. You will laugh at their antics, and be embarrassed on their behalf, but they will go home and wonder when anyone will invite their kid to anything ever again.

And when they can invest heavily in social hazard insurance.

Idle Hands Do the Devil's Work

The whole house is laid out this week. My nagging virus has turned into a she-beast of laryngitis; my husband keeps getting more and more work as the rest of the house falls apart around him, splitting his loyalties neatly down the middle; and our son...well. We kept him home from school yesterday because he was barking like a seal all night, even though he seemed perfectly plucky once he was awake. The truth was, he was probably fine to go to school--a price we paid later in the day. But I was feeling so punk myself I couldn't fathom his remarkable liveliness with goopy lungs. So while he bopped around the house from one toy car and one computer to the next, I faded in and out of consciousness and coughing fits and occasional interjections from my curious, bored son.

It happened that my husband was taking a breather from work for a few minutes and we were talking on the sofa, about something now completely unremembered. Our idle son had figured out that if he jammed his hands completely down the sides of his stretchy jammie pants, he could become the great hopping no-armed wonder.

The problem with no arms is this: you don't have the same balance you have with arms. And if you're flinging yourself around on slick wood floors in your socks, chances improve dramatically that you will fall. You know how we know this?

One minute we're having an innocuous conversation on the sofa with our unrepentantly joyous monkey showing off for us, the next minute he pitches head first toward the floor, arms cruelly abandoning him in his moment of greatest need. No arms, no catching oneself. No catching oneself, a physics lesson presents itself:

A free-falling object is an object which is falling under the sole influence of gravity. Any object which is being acted upon only be the force of gravity is said to be in a state of free fall.

No amount of wind resistance was going to slow the mighty gravitational force that was our son in that second, and I'm pretty sure that because his hands were buried deep in the recesses of his pants his entire mass landed squarely on his collarbone.

How best to describe the battle? Jammies against son, collarbone against gravity, non-necessary school absence against boredom. I know that my son lost though, and he's now a little tiny invalid stuck in a sling, his usually irrepressible spirit sapped by pain and even more boredom.

Idle hands really did do the devil's work. And though it's probably not polite to joke about the circumstances of his injury so near to the insult, I imagine that describing the situation a few years from now will become a family comedy schtick:

"Do you remember breaking your collar bone?"

"Ah, yes, The great pajama incident of Ought-Nine."

"Everyone always says not to stick your hands down your pants; now we know why!"

"It's hazardous to your health..."

"Talk about a boner!"

Poor little boy.

The Sign

Our son was an early reader. This skill has raised some interesting issues as we were not given the luxury of either faking him out (he could read the newsletters the preschool sent home, where sometime issues of adult relevance were discussed) or the ability to hide from him things which can be difficult to explain to such a young child. An example: favorite letter? X. Where do you see X's most often? XXX Topless, All Nude Review. We've been dodging that bullet for three years now.

Today, as I was cleaning up the office from the aftermath of new windows being installed and my own lousy record-keeping (shredding acres of trees in the form of credit card offers, glassine envelopes, and bills I'm not sure would be any use to even the most fastidious auditor) I came across a huge sign that our son had taped on his bedroom door last year. It reads, in jagged but perfectly legible letters:

PLEASE HELP

It hung on his door for the better part of preschool. It was an interesting plea, one that entertained more questions than answers. Help how? Help where? Help why? Clearly our son was the one who needed the help, but beyond the request itself there was no hint as to what kind of assistance was required.

This was the mystery that faced my husband when he looked at the door; I however knew what it meant.

I remember stumbling upon the sign as our son was carefully taping it up, having patiently written, correctly spelled and mostly centered on the page in big purple letters, his request. I watched as he proudly adjusted the crooked tape, a small self-satisfied grin barely skimming his lips at his accomplishment. "Why do you need help?" I asked.

"I need money," he answered.

Earlier in the day we had driven down one of Portland's less picturesque streets on our way to the store, or to visit Grandpa. It was a cool day, but bright: late autumn. Check-cashing stores and Lotto signs, gas stations and unwelcoming apartment complexes make up the landscape, and on one prime corner, at the intersection of 39th and Powell there is always one or another panhandler standing with homespun cardboard and Sharpie signs asking for lucre.

That day's hard luck case was particularly striking for her utter despair. No teeth, wheelchair, sallow, overweight. She was almost devoid of sex; the only way to tell she was a woman were her uncomfortable breasts which looked like just another burden heaped upon her by the cruel wheel of fortune. Her identifying characteristics were instead carved by grief, in lines and wrinkles, swollen legs and yellow pallor. Impossible to tell her age, she looked as though to lay her head down permanently was preferable to whatever she had faced thus far. Her message was simple: Please Help.

"Why does he need help?" my son asked, confirming the gender confusion.

How doesn't she need help? I wondered. I explained that many people were far less fortunate than us, either because of bad luck or losing their jobs, or from circumstances beyond their control they could not get enough money to live. She needed money, for food, for shelter, for medicine.

He chewed on this for a while.

And, being a sharp cookie, he realized that all he needed to do was make a sign and the answer to his problem of too few Matchbox cars might be solved.

I don't think I gave him any money, though I appreciated the sentiment. But he had discovered the power of the written word.

Later in the school year he wrote his father a note while he was gone on business. I found it in his cubby at preschool where he had diligently and clearly penned in blue ink on green construction paper his opinions about preschool itself:

DEAR PAPA THIS IS BORING

I guess it would be if you could already write about it.

Delirium Academus

There was a post in the NY Times (Good Night and Tough Luck) the other day which just about summed up the household. Lars sent it to me because it seemed that the author/artist had moved in to our house without our noticing and succinctly encapsulated our benighted (heh) quest for sleep. The only thing he missed was our personal cross to bear: one of us wakes up, the other wakes up, and then we both stay awake because we're worried we're keeping the other awake. Ouch. Other than these mundane misfortunes, the transition to Kindergarten has not been a smooth one. Apparently, unlike most children, our son believes that we're better/more interesting/infinitely cooler than being at school with kids his own age. This is a serious hurdle we didn't consider. How could being with us be better than being with kids out of his parents' sight for hours? Who didn't crave that as soon as one could walk? Ours, apparently, so every morning thus far he has slipped into what we affectionately dub "barnacle mode" where he clings like said crustacean onto our leg and won't let go. That this is embarrassing for all parties hasn't occurred to him yet. I'm waiting.

And Dad is going into Round 2 of hormone therapy, so there will be a host of posts to write as more information starts coming in from all the doctors again. We'll be reviewing his PSA numbers soon with the oncologist and his urologist, but really, for the time being the biggest pain in the hiney is his stupid arthritis. He's still chipper about the whole affair ("I'm doing pretty good for a guy with a mortal illness," he quipped to my best friend when she asked how he was) and doggedly going through his house with a fine-tooth comb to pick out plums of art for friends and loved ones. It's weird and slightly macabre, but he's quite happy to do it and it really seems to make him feel a sense of closure which is a strange sort of gift. As Ted Kennedy's wife said about his final months, "It was as though he got his victory lap," a beautiful sort of way to look at an illness like this. I think Dad is running his victory lap.

Anyway, my absence has more to do with kindergarten craziness than anything else. I hope that once we've all settled into routines again I can spend some more time waxing pathetic here. Thanks for tuning in anyway.

An Inauspicious Beginning

There is a certain level of injustice in everyday life. Not to complain or anything--we've got it pretty good--but the sheer unpredictability of life makes it more like a game of craps in Vegas. For example: who gets 103-degree fever his first day of Kindergarten? Who, exactly, gets that? Who must rise to the anxieties and terrors and great unknowables of the suspect "Elementary School," complete with strangers and other kids who seem completely at ease in their environment, with a battered immune system and an emotional frailty made intolerable by utter delirium?

I mean, is that fair?

And how about taking a non-test test, something mysterious called an "assessment" whereby you must pretend to understand what the hell this strange teacher wants when she asks you to point to a letter in a book? Why would anyone ask him something so ridiculous? He thought she might be having him on; he couldn't, even in his depleted state, believe that someone might ask him what page "the cover" was on and where to begin reading a sentence. He pointed, and kept looking at her like she was insane.

Didn't she know? Wasn't that a part of her job description? He dutifully read the book to her since she didn't seem to know herself, but it's not encouraging if your teacher is asking these questions of you. I mean, I'm five! And I have a fever! This is too much responsibility for me!

Later that night, in the midst of a feverish nightmare, he shot upright in bed yelling directly at me: "You never pick me up! You never come get me! You always forget me!" In my own sleepy confusion I defended myself and explained we had never forgotten him even once, evident, I thought, by his being in bed, next to me taking care of him, but he remained unimpressed. "You always forget me! And it's not a dream! I know it isn't!"

Well. I think that went smoothly, don't you?

The Literalist and the Absurdist Use Legos

"I don't know how to build a Toyota Tundra. Can you help me?" "I'll help you when I'm done building my silly car," I said. I had cannibalized a bunch of odds-and-sods from our son's Legos and was constructing ridiculous cars with them: the Pizza-Oven-mobile, with umbrella shooting flame out the top; the snowmobile powered by ferns and a giant rocket propulsion system. It came so naturally creating these gems of absurdity it was like riding a duck.

"What's a silly car?" he asked.

"You know, a silly car."

"Silly car?" he queried.

"Yeah, you know. Silly car."

"A car made by Silly?"

I chuckled. "No, a silly car. You know, a car that is silly."

"Is Silly the brand?"

"No," I insisted. "Just silly."

"Is it the make or the model?" Seriously, who is this kid?

"A car that is silly. It's silly, ridiculous. It is a car that is just...silly. You want to make one?"

He pondered it for a while. Then he made a car with a cat box, a mobile lunch counter, with a retracting dump truck roof, powered by the sky. I think he's embraced the brand identity of the Silly Car.

Scenes with McMonkey

"Joe has to be fixed," my son said about his friend. I thought, "Already? He's only five--shouldn't that wait until he's a teenager?"

And then I realized that he was saying Joe was broken, not ready to be neutered.

•••

We were telling the story of his first words the other day, including "st-ck" which represented both "star" and "stick," and "no-no" for moon. Mysteriously, our names were "Arf" and "Imama," (etymology of words found here, in this ridiculous essay) and he quite understandably laughed and laughed. "Arf? hahahaha! Imama?!!"

"Yeah, well, you were 'Muck,' so don't laugh too hard!"

He went back to perusing car websites. "Imama, brought to you by apple," he said, as if he were commercial voice-over talent.

We were stumped. "Huh?" we asked him.

He looked at us like we were crazy. "iMama, brought to you by Apple," he reiterated.

Of course. iPhone, iMac, iBook, iMama; it was sophisticated enough that it flew right over my husband and my small little heads.

This is the same five-year-old who designed his own logo in preschool.

•••

My husband bought me a new docking system for my iPhone last winter when I was starting to work in the basement a lot and was listening to music from its tinny little speaker.

After it arrived in the mail, my son pointed to the unused docking system in the living room and said, "Why didn't she just take this one?"

Good question, son. Good question.

•••

My husband and I are savvy on computers. Successful and clever. Bright and resourceful. We're professionals, dammit!

My son took my iPhone from me soon after I got it and handed it back to me a couple minutes later. It was frozen, completely jammed, and I couldn't do anything with it.

"What the heck happened?" I asked.

"What do you mean?" he returned.

"It's not working at all," I said.

"Yeah it is," he said confidently.

"Um," smart aleck Mom said, "no it isn't."

He took it from me and began scrolling through desktop pictures he had taken of my home screen, the exact replica of my actual phone. I was trying to dial out on a photograph. It was an amazingly clever gag.

"Jesus," my husband said, "I'm doing that to everyone's phone!"

And he did too.