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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Family: It's What's For Dinner (Revisited)

If someone were to ask me to describe what being a mother is like, I would probably refer to that old Peace Corps slogan from the 1980s, that it's the 'Toughest job you'll ever love'. Cheesy to the extreme and perhaps a tad too concise, but it kind of says it all.

Still, after almost 6 years of doing this 'job', and for the most part doing it on my own, I am still often surprised by the sheer animal ferocity with which I love and protect my kid -- this guileless, beautiful creature who shares my talent for goofy facial gestures and my unfortunate tendency toward gas and sweaty feet.

And as we all know, when you love someone with that kind of feral intensity, you open yourself up for a garden variety of heartbreak. With Lily, my most chest-tightening moments come when she s
tarts talking about her father, referring to him as if he's a great, influential part of her life. And I know that, more than anything, she just wants this to be true, even though it's not. She is hanging on to the thready bits of her relationship with him and trying to cling to whatever memories she is losing as she grows and thrives in her new life here.

I know this. Yet it still hurts me when, after Lily, me, and Jeremy (whom I refer to jokingly as 'Stepdaddy', or 'Newdaddy') climb into the car after spending an awesome day together, the kid will pipe up, apropos of nothing, "You know, I still live at Daddy's house, too".

And I feel smacked in the face. I know she's not deliberately trying to hurt Jeremy or me, but these words still sting. Because, even after her father and I split, while he couch-surfed and traveled and rented a room in someone's house, and especially now that we reside halfway across the country, she has always, always lived with me. And I feel the need to protect this. To make it known. He was the parent who left, and I was the one who stayed, and it's so not fair that he gets credit he hasn't earned. He shouldn't get elevated to rock-star status when he can't even play an instrument. No freaking way. I call foul.

So I say, matter-of-factly, "No, baby. You've never lived at Daddy's house. You visit there, and Daddy visits you. And he's your dad and he loves you. But you live with me. With Jeremy and me."

She pulls off one of her crocs and picks at a mosquito bite on her baby toe. "I do live with Daddy too." she says, a little more quietly this time. And my heart breaks for her, and I wish her father was here, so that I could run him over with my car.

I don't want my kid to hate her dad. I don't want him to just evaporate because I decided to move across the country to start over. Really, I don't.

OK, that's not true. Sure I want that. I mean, the dark, nasty, slimy part of me would looooove it if Lily just woke up one day and realized, You know, my father is really kind of a juvenile, narcissistic tool and I think I'll just drop him like a hot potato. Then I'll watch as she melts into Jeremy's waiting, open arms and the three of us will fuse together and become a superawesome, Modern American Blended Family for the 21st century.

But I don't live in a goddamned fairy tale, and I know it's not as easy as that. Lily still needs her dad to be in her life. And I want her to have him. Even if what he has to give kind of sucks. Because I don't want her to be a girl who grows with dad issues and ends up spending all of her hard-earned retirement on therapy.

And as much as I want to, I can't blurt out all of the ugly, terrible truths about why her father is so far away. I don't know if I'll ever be able to tell her these things, even when she's older and wiser and asking real questions about her lineage. I don't know if she'd benefit in any way from knowing these things about a man she now sees as fully capable and omniscient and, well, perfect.
Maybe he is that to her. And if he is, shouldn't I want to let her keep that?

But we are engaged in a strange dance, my daughter, my boyfriend, and me. It's a daily three-way tango of pushing-and-pulling as my little girl falls into a deeper sense of trust with this man that I love. I watch him sink patiently into the couch at night as she
slings her freshly-bathed legs into his lap and holds his face in her hands and kisses his cheeks. I listen to her wild girl-laugh as he plays with her on the floor and tickles her and lets her ride on his back. I smile and my heart does flipflops and I get all ohmygod as I see her let him in a little more every day.

And then, just like that, she'll push him away, as if suddenly realizing that loving Jeremy must mean loving her father less. She'll get angry when he tells her to please not yell at the dinner table and say, "I don't even like you," and look at her plate and I can see her shutting down, turning right off like a porch light at bedtime. And I struggle with this, because Jeremy deserves better.

Jeremy is here for teeth-brushing and stories and homework and peed-on sheets in the middle of the night. He painted his guest room pink, and installed a night light in the shape of a princess crown, and he buys juice boxes and gummy fruit for Lily's lunch and endures hours of brain-bleedingly horrible Disney Channel shows. This is our life, this is what it means to be there for the people you love every day, and he is here every day.

So, I try to do what I can to keep the balance. It's not easy. Part of me wants to shriek and claw out my hair when Lily insists on sleeping with her favorite Yankee cap, because it reminds her of being at a ball game with her dad. But she needs these pulpy bits of comfort, and I have to try and keep things in perspective. What's the harm in sleeping with a goddamn baseball hat, besides waking up with hat head? In the grand scheme of things, really, that's not so bad, is it?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Skating With Jesus, and Other Lessons Learned

Skate Heaven is located just outside Baton Rouge; only one exit away, in fact. But the minute you walk in, it's quite clear that you've left the city limits. For one thing, everyone smokes. As Lily and I walked up to the main entrance of the roller rink, an imposing group, varying in age from 18-65, sat on the steps, smoking and sporting more than their fair share of Looney Tunes tattoos on various calves and forearms.

My kid and I were immediately the subjects of mass squinty-eyed scrutiny, as if we were prized hams being appraised for the state fair. I took a gulp and nodded. "How y'all doin," I smiled.

We bought our tickets and walked inside, and I was thrilled. The place looked like it hadn't had a makeover or even a good vacuuming since 1985, and it smelled like sweaty feet and leather and hot dogs. The dull thump of the ancient speakers playing outdated rock music was delightful, and the unintentional kitsch of the place was captivating. The walls were airbrushed with images of roller skates with wings (get it?!!), and there were biblical psalms spray-painted all over the place like graffiti.

Skate Heaven indeed.

Though Lily is a novice roller skater at best, we still had a ball. She hooked up with a family of about 14 children, most of whom were girls around her age, and they clung to the wall and practiced together while I took a few runs around the rink on my own.

Skating by myself made me wistful, and suddenly I found myself getting sucked down a nostalgia hole, to the winter I was in sixth grade. My sister Lisa and I spent every day of our Christmas vacation that year down the street at Laces (soon to be renamed 'The Rolls', and abandoned by all respectable kids because roller rinks would quickly become unsavory hangouts for burnout latch key kids and the unspeakably nerdy).

For now though, Laces was the shit.

I rocked a gray sweater vest and my Sergio Valente jeans that were two-toned: gray stonewashed in the front and denim-colored in the back. Were I able to squeeze my hand into the front pocket of those skin-tight jeans, I'd find a 5 dollar bill my mother had given me to buy Lisa and me fat, hot, salty pretzels and cokes. Instead I spent most of the money at the vending machine, buying snickers bars because I believed the tv ads promising that "snickers really satisfies" and I needed my energy for an afternoon on the rink.

On my white skates I had fiberoptic pom poms that caught the glint of the strobe lights in the ceiling. On my skates, nothing could touch me. I felt like a queen. I even had a ridiculous skate-dance I'd made up to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" that involved some strange jutting arm-movements and made me look like a retarded majorette. But I thought I was so cool.

Thinking about the roller rink reminded me about some of the kids who hung out there. I mean, Lisa and I were only allowed there for a few hours in the afternoon, dropped off and picked up right in front in our powder blue Riviera, but there were kids who spent literally every day, all day at Laces. There was a girl named Dani, who was really Danielle, but she went by Dani because it was cool and grown-up and tomboyish. Dani had naturally curly, feathered hair and vacant brown eyes, almost black. I didn't know much about Dani except that she was in my grade and was bad at math (like me), and that she walked home from school alone and her mom never came to any school functions. But at Laces, Dani was a celebrity. Everyone knew her, and she got free slushies and everything. I heard she was even dating a guy who worked there, who was in high school.

Girls like Dani scared me. They seemed older than they should, like they'd seen way more than I had, things that i didn't want to see. They made me glad to come home to my house and my 12 year old black lab, to my mother cross-legged on the couch, compulsively sucking on sunflower seeds to quit smoking, filling our ashtrays with overflowing shells.

They made me feel like it was okay to still be a kid and to appreciate kid-things, like dinner at 6 pm and the dog barking when my dad got home and ice cream with granola and even for my parents' Saturday night date, when we'd always be left in the capable, responsible hands of Kate, our next-door neighbor and my favorite sitter. But we were never alone.

Nobody expected us to take care of ourselves.

Looking at Lily, skating along and clutching the worn, carpeted wall underneath a spinning disco ball while wearing smelly, rented kid skates, I made a little promise to myself that she would never have to be alone either.

And won't be...not as long as I could help it.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Open Mind, Open Heart, and an empty stomach for the Wild Game Cookoff!!!

Baton Rouge is a fascinating jambalaya of lifestyles and living situations. It's part college town – you've got the gorgeous area surrounding the sprawling LSU, with its overgrown ancient oak trees and masses of lost-looking freshmen scattered about like ants, literally walking into moving cars because they are all little clueless retards (Ah, to be 18 and invincible) – and then you've got a 'downtown area', which has some bars and coffee houses and a couple buildings and a courthouse, and then the rest of the city is a strange mixture of lovely tree-choked suburban neighborhoods, strip malls, churches, and pockets of ghetto shanties.

Oh, and Waffle Houses. So goddamned many Waffle Houses. Je-sus.

Yesterday, Lily and I went to the playground, and I couldn't help noticing that the black kids played together and the white kids stayed with the other whiteys. Back where we used to live, all the kids played together; they shared each others snacks (although I have to say that the Japanese kids brought the weirdest shit to the park...teeny dried fish? Really?), and skin color never factored into the equation. If the kid was willing to be the baby sister to Lily's domineering 'teacher' or 'stepmother', they were in, and that was that. I'm not saying "OMG, the south is so racist"; I'm merely observing how it's a little different here.

But omg, the south is so racist.

Not really though. I have found, so far, that people of all cultures and backgrounds seem to get along fine here (as long as they shop at their own respective Wal Marts), and progress is indeed on the rise in Louisiana. One of my neighbors even has a bumper sticker that says, "I miss Bill", and I'm telling myself he means Clinton and not Billy Mays. There's NPR and a Whole Foods and even an attachment parenting group.

What I'm trying to do here is discover and embrace the differences of my new city...while attempting to hang on to my lefty New York hippie leanings.

For instance, I think this looks like a really fun thing to do, no?


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Bumper Snickers

People sure like to express their opinions via rear bumpers here. I suppose it's a nice way to get a point across while safe in the confines of your pickup truck.

This morning I saw not one but TWO gems:

"Annoy a liberal: Work hard and smile!"


"Pray the rosary for pro life!"

Whoa. We are so not in NYC anymore.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Fun at the Dollar General Store

We have a lot of dollar stores in New York, but the Dollar General here in Baton Rouge kicks all their asses right up and down 42nd Street. I'm telling you.

Until yesterday, I'd yet to find a store where I could find Christian party games and musical light-up Halloween skeleton-head lights in the same goddamned aisle.

Lily buried herself in the deluge of cheap, poorly organized Halloween finery, while I bit my lip, trying to decide between the Barbie-sized Christ and Moses action figures to bring home and add to our collection of curiosities (which include Jesus finger puppets, a smoking baby figurine and Jeremy's signed autograph from Dave Thomas).

I was also tres psyched to find a Lily a little vampire costume/dress for $8 (now she can't change her mind at the 11th hour like she did with the giant pumpkin costume her grandmother made last year out of orange fabric and pillow stuffing:"But I wanna trick-or-treat as CINDERELLA!!!").

When the pretty, African-American checkout girl rang up our purchases without looking up, she said idly, "Oooh, you're gonna be a scary vampire for Halloween? That's cool!"
Then she looked up and our eyes met and I saw that she was wearing contact lenses of the most electric blue I thought I might be looking at Michael Jackson himself in "Thriller".

That was some major adrenaline-pumping for a Wednesday, I'll tell you.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Skeletons, Spooks and Sprained Heinies

Happy Fall, everyone! I'm always glad to bid summer farewell with the passing of Labor Day Weekend. It symbolizes the return of structure and the natural rhythm that makes me feel like I can finally breathe again. Even if it is 96 degrees outside.

We celebrated the day by going bowling, and Jeremy pulled a muscle in his ass. My poor boyfriend, once a celebrated participant of local bowling team The Beerzebubbas, must have been somewhat out of practice because he spent the evening hobbling around the house when he wasn't face down on the couch with his pants around his ankles, me massaging Ben Gay into his poor, sprained heiner. Still, I certainly can imagine worse ways to spend an evening than giving your boyfriend a butt massage while watching "Hoarders" on the DVR and eating butter toffee cashews. My life really isn't bad, all things considered.

Another good thing about Labor Day being over? The Wal Mart is lightning-fast in putting out its seasonal decor. I'm loving it. I was just there on Sunday and they were still selling kiddie pools and slip n slides. Now it's suddenly skeletons and black cats and mulled cider kits and candles smelling like spiced pumpkin. And I'm loooooving it.

It's gonna be a little strange though; this will be the first autumn ever where I haven't made a ritual out of putting away the sundresses and hauling the scratchy sweaters out of storage. And I'm a little anxious about seeing Al Roker standing in leafy Central Park in a little parka, describing the temps in NYC as 'seasonably cool' before switching to my local weather (humid and warm and on hurricane watch through Thanksgiving).

But I am embracing the change.

Why the hell not?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

I adopted a black baby.

I just bought this.

Isn't it wicked awesome? I love that it's little and sporty and fuel-efficient, but mostly I love that it's black.

I feel like a total badass driving it to the Target and the craft store. I pretend it's KIT and we are on a secret mission to stop the crime lords of Baton Rouge, right after I drop off some overdue books at the public library.

Men at stoplights turn their trucker caps backwards to gawk at me as I groove to the "Welcome Back Kotter" theme on '80s on 8' on the xm radio. They wipe the drool pooling at the corners of their mouths and wish they had the cojones to ask for my digits. I know, boys. I know. You so want a piece of this.

But then the light turns green and I zoom off to pick my kid up at school, but not before stopping at the grocery store first to pick up something for dinner.

Eat my dust, suckahs!!!