Friday, November 15, 2013

New Colors

I crept out of my room at 2:30 p.m. after my alarm went off.  Charlie was asleep and Finny was
silent.  I promised him I would come get him after thirty minutes of quiet time, which means you may no longer need a nap, but Mommy still does.  His door was closed and he was so quiet I thought maybe he had fallen asleep.  As I slowly opened the door to see where he ended up, I discovered a treasure, something I’ve been anxiously awaiting for quite some time now—Finny, the Artist.

There he was, sprawled across the floor with a bag of crayons beside him, coloring in the lines, focused, concentrating, intent on his work.
“Mommy, do you know why I just crept out of my room to get this bag of crayons?” he whispered.  “Because when I sit here I’m thinking of art projects I want to do and I had to go get the ingredients.”

“That’s wonderful, Finn.”  On so many levels.  Wonderful that he was so focused on his coloring, but just as wonderful that when he needed something, he got it himself, without disturbing me, and then he entertained himself quietly in his room while he waited for me to take a rest.  Listening, respecting, understanding, focusing—all things that four-year-old Finny was lacking had suddenly arrived here on his bedroom rug.  I beamed.
“Can I go downstairs now?”

“Yeah, let’s go.”

“I want to work on my picture some more at the dining room table.”
And he did.  For an hour and a half, while I did my “art” arranging the photos on our Christmas card at the computer, he did his work, coloring his crown at the dining room table.  The two of us quietly working side by side.  Joy.

When my sister was in town this summer with her girls, I was amazed at the markers and crayons I was finding in every room in the house, stunned by the sight of the two of them sitting beside each other busy, busy, busy making pictures.  No fair, I thought.  I want a girl.  All my boys ever do is attack and destroy.  Can’t I experience what it’s like to have children who sit and draw quietly?
Just two months ago, his teacher showed me an art project he did in class that she said was
“unique.”  She wanted to show me because it was going to hang on the wall and she wanted to give me a heads up.  September was apple month and they were each supposed to make an Apple Person by gluing and arranging cut-out pieces of construction paper in just the right spots.  Finny’s was abstract to say the least, pieces slapped together haphazardly, the stem in the middle, the arms and legs scattered about, far from the result it was supposed to be.

When I asked him about it, he said, “Well, Mommy, I did that because when my eyes looked at it they decided that it was just too big.  It was almost clean up time and I didn’t want to run out of time to play.”
Okay, I thought.  That’s valid.  He’s five, wants to play, art is not a priority. 

But this morning, just two months later, in the forty-five minutes we had before we had to leave for school, he did not ask to watch a show, he asked me to make him a book out of plain white paper, to staple the pieces together.  And then he filled it—8 whole pages—with drawings of monsters from Monsters Inc.
I found myself scrambling to find more crayons, more colors.  The craft boxes were in disarray, abused and abandoned, caps off of dry markers, play dough--dry and crusty, and crayons--broken and haphazard, strewn about. 

“Where’s the purple, Mommy?  I need purple for Sulley’s spots.”
“Ok, ok, let’s look.  I’ll find purple.”  And I found myself dropping everything to find the purple crayon, to see him draw and create, rather than attack and destroy. 

And then he brought it with him in his backpack to school, pulled it out to show his teacher.  Proud.
And it’s not just drawing, it’s sculpting, wrapping, designing.  I keep finding piles of toys, artfully arranged around the house and the yard—Treehouses, he calls them. 

And ever since David’s birthday last Monday, he’s wrapped more presents than I can count. 

“Daddy,” he calls when David walks in the door, “I have more birthday presents for you!”  And there waiting for David on the dining room server are eight to ten gifts, toys wrapped in torn-out pieces of notebook paper and taped together with blue painter’s tape.  It’s been difficult to walk around this week without collecting pieces of blue painter’s tape on my slippers.  Gifts in the family room, gifts in the dining room, gifts under his pillow and ours.
This morning at 6:30 a.m. he walked out of his room wearing his State Capital crown (colored in the lines!) holding a tissue box wrapped in blue painter’s tape in one hand and carrying a party horn in the other.

“You going to a party, Finn?” 
He smiled under half-closed eyes, nodded his head.

This is fun.  The wrapping, the giving, the drawing and creating.  This is Finny at five, just a few months after four and a half, and already he’s different again, changing, evolving, revealing more and more pieces of who he is becoming. 
A little boy, destructive and energetic, messy and loud.

A little boy, sweet and contemplative, thoughtful and creative.
Every month revealing a new color, a new shape, a new image on a canvas that I sometimes forget is far from finished.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Potty Training, You Crazy Mystery: Part II

I just re-read my first potty-training blog from the weekend two years ago when we basically injected Finny with a gallon of Capri Sun and then watched him explode all over the house (  My panic and anxiety about potty-training is palpable.  It pops off the page and sinks into my nerves.  I remember this feeling of dread and impatience and complete puzzlement.  If I over-filled Finny with Capri Sun, I over-filled myself with ideas and methods and techniques and everyone else’s opinion of what was right and what was wrong.  I nearly exploded myself.

This time was different.  This time the voice and wisdom of my friend Anne echoed in my head:  “It’s just pee and poop."  I was floored when we went to the zoo with Anne and her boys, Zach and Nick, who was two and a half at the time, and she said, “Nick is wearing underwear today.”
“What?!” I looked at her as if she’d completely lost her mind.  “You are taking him to the zoo with just underwear on?  How did you do that?  Why did you do that?”

I remember interrogating her in my kitchen, her nonchalance blowing my mind.  “It’s just pee and poop,” she said.

And I thought, just pee and poop?!  Just pee and poop?!  Pee and poop all over the floor, all over the underwear, all over the car seat!  Something more I have to make time for, something else I have to clean up, something else I have to find patience and energy for, something that is going to slow us down, keep us inside, make me crazy!  My perfectionism, my fear of failure, my self-doubt were voices so loud in my head that I couldn't make room for all the messiness and uncertainty that comes with potty-training.

But last Saturday when we decided to throw Charlie in a pair of underwear for the day, I had better voices in my head.  I had my mom and my sister, saying, “Try it.  If it doesn't work, so what?  Put him back in diapers.”  And out of all the potty-training books and manuals I had read, the one phrase that remained was from Anne, “It’s just pee and poop.”

If we look at last Saturday as a whole, all signs point to one conclusion:  not a good time to potty train Charlie.  I was up at 3 a.m. with a mean hangover after spending a night drinking vodka drinks with David as if I were twenty-two and had nothing more to do on a Saturday than eat an egg sandwich and watch a Kurt Russell movie marathon.  I had to clean my house and bake a cake for Finny’s family birthday party with Aunt Celeste and Uncle Ray, and I had to run ten miles to prepare for our upcoming race.  But it was rainy and we were staying in, and Aunt Celeste and Uncle Ray have five kids, so I knew they wouldn't care if the cake turned out ugly and we were spending a little extra time in the bathroom.  I was also probably still the tiniest bit drunk from the night before.  So we went for it. 

I did not make a sticker chart, we did not throw a potty party, and I didn't give Charlie anything extra or additional to drink that day than I normally would have.  I also didn't stalk him around the house watching his every move and insisting he sit on the potty every thirty minutes.  We just put him in underwear and showed him where to go.

He pooped his underpants four times that first day.  Four times?!  And do you know what I did?  I rinsed them out and threw them in the wash.

But he also peed on the potty, all but once, all day long, and every time we celebrated with “neminems!” and high fives.  And every time, I’d say, “I’m so proud of you, Charlie!” and he’d respond, “I’m so proud of you too, Mommy!”  And he has no idea how much that meant to me.  He has no idea what kind of progress I've made.

The next day, we went to the zoo.  The zoo!  And his pull-up stayed dry the whole day.  If he had to pee, he told me and we went.  And that night, we went to dinner at a restaurant.  In underwear.  And I did not even think to bring a diaper bag or a change of clothes.  We visited the bathroom three times.  Two false alarms, one success.  And he stayed dry the whole time.  The whole day.  No accidents on the second day of potty-training.  And now, as I sit here typing six days after his first official day of wearing underwear, he is at preschool, in underwear, all by himself.

…And now as I finish this blog, ten days later—because nothing I start ever seems to get finished these days—Charlie is officially potty-trained.  He wears underwear all day long, pees and poops on the potty, sometimes for M&M’s, sometimes just because he has to go, he wakes up dry in the morning, and I have officially--for the first time in five years--put the Diaper Champ away. 

This is not to say he does not have the occasional accident, this is not to say we still don’t have to stand there and help him through the process of getting the seat out, getting his pants down, washing his hands, etc.  But the difference is all in my understanding of the process.  There is no “Potty Training in Less than a Day!” despite what the book title claims.  There is no “Potty Training Boot Camp” and then you’re done.  Potty Training, like parenting, is a process that evolves over years and it is different for every kid.  It’s messy and uncertain and to the new parent—terrifying.
But when there are successes, when everything miraculously lands where it’s supposed to, when it’s supposed to, the pride is palpable, the high fives are hand-stinging, and the M&M’s taste like something rich, something decadent, something you should stand on a potty-stool-podium to receive with cameras flashing.

Because after all, it’s not “just” pee and poop.  It’s pee and poop in the potty.  And that’s remarkable.  Not worth getting all worked up over, but definitely worth struttin’ around the house with your head held high and your best pair of Diego undies smiling behind you.

Friday, September 20, 2013


In an interview I once saw with Mike Myers, he revealed that there was big pressure to be funny in his family.  If a visitor came to their house and was not witty enough, his dad would say, “Not funny.  Can’t come in.”

I’m happy to announce that if Mike Myers’ dad were alive today and Charlie VanHimbergen walked through his front door, it wouldn’t take long before Myers’ dad would be slapping his knee and offering Charlie a seat on the couch and a bag of Cheetos (or whatever it is that they serve guests in Canada).

He does impressions, makes faces, wears silly costumes, and does a killer robot dance.  Sometimes, he’s two-year-old funny.  The kind of funny that just comes from being two and saying things like, “I bonked my pants!” or shouting at me from beneath his blankie, “MOMMY, I’M SCARED OF MY CONDITIONER!”  But other times, he’s got a way of spinning a laugh with a twinkle in his eye and a sly side-grin that reveals he knows exactly how to play his audience.

It’s hard to say when we first started to pick up on his general hilarity, but we could probably trace it back to last fall, when at not yet two years old he would drop to his knees, tuck his head and shuffle aggressively across the hardwood floor to the great big crescendo moment in Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.”  It’s reminiscent of Ferris Bueller or just about any 1980’s Michael J. Fox movie.  Not quite up to Napoleon Dynamite standards, but give him time.

But even better than his comedic rhythm and his nutso hair is the distinct quality of his voice.  He’s got this awesome sort of rasp/growl that comes from deep in his throat as if he had been smoking Marlboro Reds for nine months in utero.  When he was a baby, we would hear the rasp/rattle in his breathing and my dad urged me to ask the pediatrician about it.  She told us some kids just have it.  And Charlie, much like Owen Meany, does.  Thank God.

After we watched Princess and the Frog, he walked around the house for at least a week yelling, “ESTELLA!” in the voice of John Goodman.  He’s passionate about Billy Joel's "PRESSURE!" and Marcus Mumford’s, “LOVER OF THE LIGHT!” and "Awake My Soul," which he thinks is, "PUT AWAY MY SWORD!"  But my personal favorite is his perfect impression of Roz, the secretary/secret chief of Monsters Inc. who has the voice of an old New Yorker who’s recently had her nails done in Fire Engine Red while puffing away at a box of cigarettes.  He’ll look you right in the eye and transform himself as he says, “I’m watching you, Wazowski.  Always watching.  Always.”  

It’s amazing.  I roar every time.

It’s not just what he repeats though.  He’s an original too.  His inherent love of escalators, elevators, double decker-decker buses, golf, and Michael Jackson are constantly in play at relevant and irrelevant points in the day.  Every night, when we ask him what he wants to thank God for, his answer is, “I want to thank God for golfing and the driver’s range” and when Finny tries to get him to leave his backyard golf game to play something else, he growls like a grumpy old man, “I’M TRYING TO PLAY GOLF!” [Grandparents, take note:  this kid needs a pair of plaid pants and a Bobby Jones golf cap for his birthday.]

Every morning when I put gel in his hair, he asks me to make him look like Michael Jackson, and he frequently tells me that I look kinda like Michael Jackson myself, which I can only guess is because of my pale complexion…or because my fifth nose job didn't turn out quite right.

Between the two of them, we have a constant laugh track going in our house.  Sometimes they drive me crazy with how destructive and whiny and messy and mischievous they are.  But it’s pretty clear that they’ve got my number when I forget how angry I am about the baby powder, the toilet paper, the spilled juice, or the Sharpie marker because I’m laughing too hard to care.

Charlie, Mike Myers’ dad is no doubt saving a seat for you at the funny table in heaven.  In the meantime, I’m so blessed to have you seated at my funny table making me shoot grilled cheese and tomato soup out of my nose.

DISCLAIMER:  Charlie's mother wrote this. There may be a sliiiight bias.  I'm sure everyone thinks they have the funniest kid alive, but that's likely only because they haven't met mine.

Wazowski Links:  Click below to see the likeness.  It's uncanny.


Friday, September 13, 2013


Today is Friday.  And not just any old Friday.  Today is the first Friday I sit by myself with my computer and a cup of coffee, while both my boys are in school.  There was no crying from any of us.  We are glad to be together.  We are glad to be apart. 

It’s impossible to describe the joy I felt at their births, and it’s impossible to describe the joy I feel when I step out, on my own, with two hours to form complete thoughts in the quiet of my own brain.
There is great joy in riding in the car with Charlie.
“Mommy, I see a digger!  A city bus!  A sign that says ‘Bump’!  The mumber 100!”

“Mommy, I like this song.  Who sings this song?  Mommy, it’s Florence and the Machine!  It’s ‘Lover of the Light’!  It’s ‘I Know You Want It’!”
“Mommy, can we go to the car wash?  The children’s museum?  Choo-Choo Bob’s?  Trader Joe’s?”

There is also great joy in riding, just riding in the car, music on, empty backseat. 
I know, I know.  Someday all my kids will be in school all day and I’ll be alone and sad that this precious time is over.  But today, I am not sad or lonely or nostalgic for the past.  Today, I am rejoicing that I can have my blueberry scone and eat it too.  That I can have time with my children and time to myself too.

One is not always the loneliest number.  Sometimes, it’s the best number, full and beaming as it sits there staring out the window from a table in Starbucks, anonymous and all by itself.




“He’s sooooo hard.”

I find myself saying this a lot lately, as I sigh, or cry, or glug back a big sip of Chardonnay.

He yells and screams and hits and pushes and growls and snarls and sometimes spits.
“He’s so haaarrrrd.”

He runs from me when it’s time to get dressed or brush his teeth or go potty or leave the park.  He rarely just says, “Ok,” to anything I need him to do that resembles a normal function of the day.
“He’s soooooo haaaarrrrd.”

When he washes his hands, he becomes mesmerized by the way the water looks as it falls through his fingers and around his palms.  If I wasn’t there to gently squeeze his shoulder, he’d stand there all morning in a trance.  He frequently walks out of the bathroom with his pants around his ankles, as if that 3 second step in the process was just too hard or boring for him to complete.  In fact, most things take a long time because he sees another world entirely unfolding around him.  He has a constant storyline unfolding in his head, and he notices every detail of a room.
He has a wonderful memory.  He’ll tell you so himself.  He can remember movie lines and commercial slogans or people he met when he was two and hasn’t seen since.  Details of tunnel slides at parks we went to once a year ago.  Pages from books we checked out at the library and read twice.

But, he can never remember where he puts things down.  “Where’s my chapstick?  My transformer?  My  baby lion?  My water bottle?”
He is too concerned with the big picture, life’s joys (Can I have a treat?), heaven (When I’m an angel, will I still be a boy or will I be a girl?) to focus on the tasks that all of us have to complete as a part of getting on with the day.

And it’s sooooo haaaarrrd to have these constant battles all day long.  I hate to be a nag, and yet, I’m reduced to it because if I weren’t, his teeth would rot out of his mouth, he’d pee his pants, the dirt would start growing things in his fingernails, he’d have a terrible sunburn, and he’d starve.  To death.  Because I wasn’t standing there over him telling him to have one more bite of banana before he can be excused.
Or would he?

Exasperated, I told my mom how frustrated I was over these little conflicts Finny and I have all day long about the bare necessities, and she suggested, “Leave him alone for a day.  Go about your morning, take care of Charlie and give up the fight.  See what happens.”
I liked that idea.  (Which is not a small victory for my mom, who often tells me I was the hard one.)

So, I tried it.  The next day, we had to run an errand with a promise of a visit to the park afterwards.  I gave Finny his clothes and told him it was time to get dressed.  He got lost in a toy.  I proceeded to change Charlie.  “Okay," I marched on, "Time to brush teeth!”  Charlie ran into the bathroom ready for me to scrub the dinosaurs out of his mouth.  Finny got lost on the way there, distracted by a toy car sitting in the sink of his toy kitchen.
“Okay, let’s get shoes on.  Time to go.”

Out on the porch, I helped Charlie with his shoes, and Finny sat down to put his own shoes on, when it dawned on him—“Hey, I didn’t get dressed or brush my teeth!”
“Nope, you didn’t.  Time to go.  You’ll just have to go in your pajamas.”

He smiled.  His eyes glittered.  Cool, he thought.  I knew the teeth would not instantly rot out of his mouth, but I was waiting for some sort of natural consequence to tell him this was not as cool as he thought it was.
And then it came.  In the checkout line at Target.  Two little girls in front of us said, “Hey, is he wearing his pajamas?  Why is he wearing his pajamas?”  I replied with an inner smile, “Yep, he didn’t bother to get dressed today.”  Finny got lost in the candy display.

We moved on to the park.  After climbing and running, swinging and tunnel-sliding at the park, I thought surely he would begin to see the error in his ways, when he noticed how hot he felt in his long-legged pajamas, until I realized the long-legged pajamas were actually allowing him to go down slides that were too hot for Charlie’s bare legs.

Finally, my big moment came when we went over to a shaded area of Wolfe Park and another little boy called him out again, “Hey, why is he wearing pajamas to the park?”
The boy walked away and Finny said, “Why do people keep asking why I’m wearing my pajamas?”

I nodded, knowingly, and swept in for the big lesson reveal, the big pat on my own back. 
“Well, Finny, because it’s kind of silly, don’t you think.  Wouldn’t you think it was silly if you saw a little boy in his pajamas at the park?  Wouldn’t you go up to him and say, ‘Hey why are you wearing your pajamas?’”

And here came the lesson.
“No,” he said matter-of-factly, “Because it might hurt his feelings.  And I wouldn’t want to do that.  I would go up to him and say, ‘Hi, I’m Finny.  Wanna be my friend?’”

And I swallowed my pride and beamed with it all at the same time.
Here I was trying to make him feel ashamed of wearing his PJ’s to the park in some small hope that maybe he wouldn’t fight me on getting dressed anymore, and there he was, littler and yet much, much bigger than me, saying, “I would never want to make someone else feel ashamed.”

Gulp.  Sigh.  Hang head.  Lift head high.  He’s sooooo….…good.
He might get lost in the daily routine.  He might not be quick to see my urgency, my sense of time, my agenda.  But as he sits down to pull his undies on and he notices all the little fibers in the bath rug, as he goes to wash his hands and he notices the way the water pools and falls between his fingers and over his palms, somewhere in there, he is absorbing the big picture.

And I am forced to stand back and take notice.
And I am privileged to stand back and take notice.

And I am reminded of Martha, who was furiously cleaning the house and preparing the meal, feeling resentment towards her sister, Mary, who was sitting at His feet, listening to His story.
And Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are distracted by many things.  But there is just one thing.”

I am blessed to be the one brushing his teeth, pulling up his undies, zipping his coat, as he is busy going about the business of filling himself up with all the small wonders and that great big picture that I sometimes fail to see.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Raising Boys

It’s beginning.  The point in time when my boys are no longer my babies--they’re my boys.  And they’re orangutans.  Total apes.  Creatures I am closely related to, but due to the mysteries of evolution, I cannot communicate with.
Often lately, I find I am torn between bursting into hysterical, gut-busting laughter and bursting into angry, frustrated tears.  They exhaust me and they fill me up.  All at the same time.
A few weeks ago, they got a hold of a silver Sharpie and colored the vanilla couch with large, long, highly visible strokes of gray.  We flipped the cushions to the “clean” side.  A few days later, Finny barfed all over them.  I washed them.  Twice.  But there’s still no clean side.  Despite my best efforts to keep food out of the family room, I found chocolate fingerprints on them last night.  Clean is an illusion.  It’s a mirage in the desert.  I keep reaching for it, only to be disappointed that it disappears as soon as I get there.  I might as well just bury the vacuum and the dust cloths deep in the closet, and lay down in the sand to work on my suntan.
This week, for the third time this month, Finny broke Charlie out of his locked room at nap time and decorated it with baby powder.  This time, I was up there fast.  The second time though, I did not have enough imagination to conceive what could possibly be occurring when I heard vague rumblings upstairs.  When I reached the top of the stairs, I saw Charlie’s door open to the left, and to the right, I saw Charlie and Finny both huddled in his bed.  Charlie was covered in white from head to toe.  Finny had one word for me:  “Sorry.”
An entire, full bottle of baby powder was all over the room—the rug, the blinds, the shelves, the walls the bed, the air.  My black pants turned white just from walking into the room.
The part of me that knew this was hysterical, took a picture and smiled at a deep place on the inside.  The part of me who had just a couple hours earlier vacuumed and mopped this very room as I prepared for company to come, was seething, taking deep, calming breaths as I re-vacuumed in a heated rage, trying hard to decide what punishment fit the crime.  Finny lost privileges for the day, and I told him we’d have to lock his door for a while at nap time until we could trust him again.  I was fuming at the time, trying to get him to understand that he destroyed my hard work, but today, I smile when I pick Charlie up and occasionally odd spots like his hair or an elbow smell vaguely of baby powder.
It’s not just the mess they make though—pee on the bathroom floor, toilet paper off the roll, torn up tape and paper strewn about, dirt, sand, dirt, sand, toys dumped out of every toy basket they can find, pages of books torn up and spread around the room—it’s also they’re general state of being.
They’re like rockets, filled and bursting.  Tornadoes, swirling and destructive.  Cave men, perpetually longing to be naked with endlessly dirty fingernails.  They jump and climb and tear each other limb from limb.  They undress themselves and then put hats and socks on.  They pee…everywhere.  Charlie’s sheets are changed daily and Finny, just last Wednesday pulled down his pants and peed in the sand right in the middle of a crowded park.  The other parents laughed, thank God.  I shook my head and smiled at the orange hair I saw sprouting out of his back.  My little orangutan.
I love them.  But I have to learn to live with them without seeing Red most of the time.  So I did what I usually do, I decided I needed to study this subject that I know little about, and I checked out a handful of books from the library:  How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, Raising Boys—Why Boys are Different and How to Help them Become Happy and Well-Balanced Men, and Wild Things:  the art of nurturing boys.
I’ve learned a lot from these books.  I’ve earmarked pages and had aha moments.  I’m starting to embrace they’re wild ways and understand the important role I’ll play as they’re mother.  Here are just a few of the things I’ve gleaned from these pages:
1.       Ages 2-4, boys are Explorers.  When they are unscrewing the lid on the peanut butter jar on the rug, they are not being malicious.  They’re being curious.
2.        At age 4, boys experience a surge in testosterone causing them to become aggressive and energetic, creating an interest in superheroes and guns and all manners of fighting and destruction (I double underlined this one).
3.       At age 5, their testosterone cuts in half, allowing them to calm down in time for school (I got out my pen and started marking the days on the calendar until September 30, when I expect to find that Finny has suddenly stopped thinking it’s funny to growl at strangers, put his feet on the dinner table, and tell me he’s going to punch me in my poopy penisface.)
4.       From birth to age 6, Mom is the most important person in a little boy’s life—she teaches him how to love.  Boys at this age, even the naughty ones need to be showered with kisses and affection all the time (Check and Double Check.)
5.       At age 6, boys will start to identify more with their dads and become interested in learning from dad about how to be a boy.  (I started marking the days on the calendar until September 30, 2014 and planning my solo trip to Santorini.)
6.       Boys need to know the rules and they need to know who’s in charge.  They crave discipline.  Without it, they’ll set the forest on fire and drop the boulder on the poor, sweet kid with the glasses.  The conch is more than just a shell.  It’s their salvation.  (I made a note to use this as my next thesis statement on a Lord of the Flies essay.)
7.       From ages 5-8, boys are Lovers.  They do eventually learn right from wrong.  They do eventually want to please their parents.  They will feel guilt and shame when they do something wrong.  A loving parent will need to remember this and teach them what’s right, without filling them with shame.  (Since Finny’s not yet 5, I still feel like I have about a month and a half window to make him feel pretty bad about himself without doing any real, lasting damage.  And Charlie, well that field’s wide open.)

They are still orangutans—after writing this yesterday morning, Finny peed not once, but three times on the family room rug, just for his own amusement—but they’re my orangutans and it’s my job to teach them love, unconditional love, that is sometimes so visible, it vaguely resembles steam coming out of my ears.

Friday, July 5, 2013


At the bottom of the hill, the cute blonde naturalist pulls a bull snake from a pillow case that she has stored in a blue cooler.  It wraps itself around her wrist and forearm as its tongue goes in and out, flicking, tasting, smelling its new environment.  Families are scattered on the grassy steps of the outdoor amphitheater on picnic blankets, in camp chairs.  Children sit in laps and listen to all the cool facts about snakes—the cloudy eyes revealing skin about to be shed, the scales on the belly, rough on one side for slithering, the tongue that flicks and smells and helps gulp down a frozen mouse once a week.  This bull snake, Samantha, carries a Mohawk of skin above her head.  I feel tempted to pull on it like an old sunburn, wanting the satisfaction of removing it in one long sheet.

But all of this is like the blurred peripheral of a camera lens which is actually zooming in tighter on something else, a moving target that won’t sit still long enough to be photographed, my boys, sweaty and giggly, running up and down the big, grass hill.  I try to zoom in on Charlie’s big teeth, his wet curls, his head thrown back.  Finny’s red lips, his smiling eyes.  They go so fast, propelled by the angle of the hill, so that when they reach the bottom, every time, without fail, Charlie is flung forward, face planting in the grass.  There’s always a pause as we watch to see if he’s hurt, but every time he comes up laughing, waiting for Finny to roll on top of him, sending him into further hysterics.  And then, up and back, to do it all again.
In the periphery I can see the other parents, silently judging.  I hear one mom whisper, “No, you stay here.  You’re older than them.  Be respectful.”  I wonder if I should rein them in, if we’re being rude.  But the periphery blurs again, and I see nothing but pure, unbridled delight.  All they want to do is run.  All they need is grass and a slight incline.  All they need is each other to topple over again and again.  They’re wild things and I let them be.  Too often, I’m telling them don’t touch, get down, clean up that mess, sit still, relax, behave, listen.  Too often I want them to just sit quietly and play cooperatively while I tend to all the other things that need to be done—laundry, dishes, phone calls to the cable company, the insurance company, the phone company.  Right now, in this big, open space, I just want to see them run.  I just want to see how sweaty and sticky and dirty they get.  No bathtub at the campground.  Just unbridled play, marshmallows and sleep in the breeze.

As my attention drifts back to the periphery, I catch the story of the bull snake.  The bull snake, she says, gets its name because like a bully, it acts tougher than it actually is out of insecurity and fear.  When it senses a threat, it puffs itself up, hisses loudly and shakes its tail, as if it had a rattle, as if it had some venom to release from a strong, swift bite.  But it doesn’t.  It has nothing but a show, smoke and mirrors, bark with no bite.  Vulnerable and defenseless should anyone call his bluff.
I envy it.  This past year, I’ve let anxiety tear me up.  I shake my tail at it and then fall to pieces, convinced I am losing my mind--over what?  A To-Do list that never gets done.  I almost lost it again today when Finny wouldn’t nap and my own lack of sleep was crawling under my skin, around my brain, telling me I couldn’t deal, camping trip was off, we’d have to go.  No bite.  No bark.  Show’s over.

But then, something bigger crawled in.  Told me to get up, get a coffee, take your son to the beach, be outside, enjoy it.  It’s a beautiful day.  And something even bigger still allowed me to listen, pull myself up, grab Finny and the car keys and go.
And now here I am, sitting at the bottom of this hill, looking up at David standing at the top and our two scrappy boys running and rolling between us.  And I am grateful to David for taking us out here.  Grateful to God for the beach and the woods, the grass and the water, the breeze and the bull snake.  My To-do list is rendered useless here.  I can’t even shower, let alone worry about unpaid bills.  All I can do is tune into this show, starring two little boys who are teaching me the giddy, outrageous delight of running and rolling and laughing.  Two little boys full of mischief and play and joy.  Two little boys who are made of many things, including little pieces of me.  And I fill up, focus in.  The color is bright, vibrant even.  Clear, sharp, pure.  And I’m grateful that although I am vaguely aware of the snakes hissing in the grass below, I hear no rattle.  I feel no venom.  They are blurry, out of focus, lost in their own smoke.

All I see are red lips, smiling eyes, strawberry curls and skinny knees.  Wild things running wild.  Nothing to hold them back.

Sunday, May 19, 2013


The hat is old, at least thirty-five years old, because David wore it when he was little.  It’s blue and gold and says Fighting Irish.  There are a few holes where moths have feasted and there is a yellow pom-pom on top that seals the deal.  It’s the cutest thing Charlie has ever worn and he found it in the coat closet.  He picked it out.  He puts it on almost every day, when the mood strikes him.

It symbolizes him.  His style.  His mind.  He is an “I do it myself!” kind of guy.  He is a “Don’t help me!” kind of guy.  He is a “Go away, stand back, I got it” kind of guy.  And he loves accoutrements, especially hats.

He wears the Fighting Irish hat when he rides his bike, when we take Finny to school, when he’s sitting in the cart at Target, sometimes even when he naps.  The other day when he was struggling to go down for a nap, I walked in and found tiny gold threads from his pom-pom in clumps and piles all over his bed.  The pom-pom is still there, but looks a little anemic now.  David was sad.  “But I can’t take it away,” I said, “It’s the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.”  He agreed.

Lately, he’s also taken a liking to his Spiderman bike helmet.  It’s the first thing he wants to put on when he walks down the stairs in the morning.  He eats breakfast in it.  He dances to Michael Jackson in it, and two nights ago, he just sat on the couch and watched Mary Poppins in it.  I love it.  I wish he’d been wearing it a couple months ago when the back of his head slammed into the coffee table.  I think he should probably wear it all the time.

When he’s putting in song requests—“I wanna hear Beat It.  I wanna hear Jungle Boogie.  I wanna hear Freak Out, Come On, Don’t Stop, Lover of the Light, Satisfaction, I Will Wait, Viva Was Megas, Roll Away Your Stone, Hey Ya,”—when he’s singing, dancing, hanging from the monkey bars, going down the slide, looking for Sinny, asking for graham crackers, throwing his milk cup at me, telling me to go away, calling himself a “Stinky Baby,” making “Smoovies” in the kitchen, telling us he wants a “Family hug,” telling me he sees the “Number one hundred!”, telling me he sees a “W!”, an “E!”, a “Big, red truck!”, a “Blue button!”, when he’s doing all of these things while sporting some kind of head gear, I start to see who he is and who is becoming and I love turning the pages. 

I wonder:  He loves music—will he be a musician?  He loves pressing buttons—will he be an engineer?  He loves numbers—will he be a mathmetician?  I wonder, but I don’t want to skip ahead. 

Right now, I know my two-year-old Charlie loves hats and I want to linger here a while on this page.  I want to sit comfortably by and just watch him--watch him play, sleep, ride bikes, swing high, eat Cheerios.  I want to sit a while on this page and watch what he’s writing, always, always with blond curls poking out beneath his head gear, always, always adorned in some kind of fashionable thinking cap.

Saturday, May 18, 2013


I took them to Panera after swim lessons.  Panera and the swim school are directly across from each other in the mall.  Unlike David, I rarely take them out to a restaurant by myself.  I find it stressful and thoroughly unfun.  But I decided we needed a little treat, a break from routine, and besides, Charlie has been better at sticking by my side, better at listening and cooperating.  So we went for it.

The restaurant was crowded with the noon rush, but I managed to find a booth right by the food counter, so that I could pick up the food when it was ready and still keep them in sight.

All three of us were delighted by our treat.  I, my chicken and wild rice soup, Charlie, his grilled cheese, and Finny, his shells and cheese.  Charlie was in the booth beside me, on the inside and he couldn’t help but stand up and look around, take it all in—the people, the noises, the hurry, the commotion.

Finny was across from me, blowing furiously on his mac and cheese, desperate for the steam to go away so he could dig in.  We were excited too because at this swim lesson, Finny was swimming, really swimming, moving himself back and forth across the water with no noodle, no barbell, no life jacket or flotation device of any sort.  He was kicking and scooping and propelling himself from one side to the other, a distance of about nine feet, with little to no assistance.  And I was thrilled too because even in the moments when he couldn’t quite make it to the other side, he found the wall, he found the teacher, he found a way to keep from sinking, drowning.  And he loved it.  Back and forth, back and forth, head under water every chance he got, even when he was waiting for the other boy to take his turn.  He didn’t want to get out.  “I’m gonna be a scuba diver someday, Mommy.”

So, as we sat there in the booth, beaming from what he had accomplished, I began to worry.  I was happy that he was gaining skill and confidence, but also worried that he was losing fear, something I want him to grip tight to and let go of all at the same time.

“Finny,” I said, “You did great today.  I am so proud of you.  You were swimming.  Swimming without a noodle, without a lot of help from Mr. Ike, you were doing it, kicking, scooping, swimming.  It’s wonderful.  But, I just want you to remember the most important rule of swimming.  You never, never ever ever go in the water without a grown-up.  Do you understand?”

“I know, Mommy.  I know I could sink and I’m scared to sink.”

Good.  He knows.  He’s four.  Old enough to get braver, young enough to be scared.

As we finished our lunch and the boys got squirrelier.  Finny sliding under the table and Charlie now jumping on the booth seat like a trampoline, I knew it was time to go. 

“Okay.  Let’s get going guys.”  I reached over to the end of the booth to grab Charlie’s jacket and put it on, one sleeve, then the other, then zip.

Then, I turned back to Finny.  His turn.  But he wasn’t there.

Not under the table.  Not next to the table.  Not a few tables away.  Not at the drink stand.  Not anywhere.  He was gone.  Without a sound, in less than a minute.  He was simply gone.

I picked up Charlie and began searching, asking everyone around me, “Did you see my son leave?  Black t-shirt.  Did you see him leave?  He was just here.”  No one saw him.  The restaurant was full.  Full of people having their own conversations.  No one saw him.  A man got up to help me look. 

“I hear a kid crying over here,” someone said.  I looked by the food line.  It wasn’t him.  The man checked the bathroom.  A lady was now helping me.  “Tell the manager,” she said. 

“Can you page my son?  I need you to page my son.  He’s gone.  His name is Finn.”

Another man got up to help.  He looked outside.  Another lady got up.  “Someone saw him!” she said.  But again it wasn’t him. 

The room was buzzing around me and for a split second I had a moment to imagine leaving without him.  Just the day before I had lost my phone.  I searched the car, looked everywhere and eventually had to just drive home, knowing that my phone was still lost.  I had a moment to imagine that.  Leaving without Finny, knowing he was still lost. 

“Someone saw him!  He’s in the mall!  By the entrance!”

I ran out and there he was coming around the corner.   Smiling.

I spanked him and then I hugged him and then I shook and cried and grabbed him tight, finding his eyes, piercing him with my eyes.

“Where did you go?!”

“I went outside.”

“I thought I lost you.  Forever.  I thought a bad guy took you and that I would never see you again.”

He started crying.  “I just went outside.  I’m not scared to go outside by myself.  I can do it.”

“No, you can’t.  Never.  When we are in public, you can never leave my side.  Do you understand?”

As I gathered my things from the booth, I thanked everyone who had left their lunch to help me look.  Everyone had a story for me of when it had happened to them.  Everyone  sympathized with my terror. 

I was exhausted.  Exhausted by the contradiction I was constantly trying to instill.  Be brave.  Be fearful.  Do it yourself.  Don’t do it yourself.  Go, have fun.  Stay.  Stay right here.  Hold my hand.  Don’t even think about leaving my sight.

He’s four.  Young enough to be scared, old enough to be braver. 

I’m thirty-three.  Mother of a two-year-old and four-year-old and some days, despite how hard I paddle and kick, I worry that I won’t make it to the other side, some days, I’m looking furiously for the wall, the noodle, the life jacket, terrified that I’m sinking under the constant, intense pressure to keep them both safe from the outside world and from themselves.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Pressing the Buttons

Last week he pooped in the bathtub.  Two weeks ago he shattered his bedroom window with his head.  That same day he escaped from me five times at the mall; one of those times I found him crawling up the escalator.  Three weeks ago, a nurse was stitching up his head in the ER after couch jumping led to a crash landing on the edge of the coffee table.

He does not eat dinner.  He is impossible to wake up from a nap; he flings himself about wanting nothing to do with anyone or anything for about an hour after waking.  Now that his crib is converted to a toddler bed, he rarely sleeps in his bed anymore.  Often we find him asleep on the hardwood floor or in his rocking chair.  Two nights ago, we found him sleeping naked in the middle of the room.  He doesn't walk down the stairs; he jumps.  And he wants assistance with nothing, insisting always, “Nooooo!  I dood it myself!”

“How are you, Charlie?” We ask.  He answers, “I’m two.”  And it’s the truth.  He’s two.  And me?  I’m exhausted.  I nap every day.  Shamelessly.  Well, sometimes I feel guilty, but it doesn't last long because I fall asleep quickly.

He’s trouble…and yet, I can’t get enough.  I run my fingers through his curls, I dance with him cheek to cheek, I tickle him into a giggling ball on the couch.  And I love how much he loves me.

It’s hard to explain this kind of bliss.  He’s a baby becoming a toddler becoming a boy becoming a man.  Sometimes I look at David, his twin, and try to imagine my Charlie with big shoulders, harry arms, five o’clock shadow.  He’s going to roll his eyes at me some day, I’m sure of it.  But right now, he says, “I want hold you, Mommy!”  He says, “I’m onna getch you, Mommy!”  He says, “I want snuggle with you, Mommy.”  He lets me kiss his cheeks, play piggies on his toes, and rub my hand across the top of his forehead, feathering his hair.  Right now I get to watch him wear my sunglasses and hat.  I get to ride the escalator, the elevator and now, the Wonkavator with him every chance we get.  And I get to see the wonder in his eyes as he stands, feet planted on the elevator floor, feeling the subtle movement that tells him, “We’re going up, Mommy!”

Yeah, Charlie, we’re going up, up, up all the time.  And some days, I’m tired of scrambling to keep you from falling down, down, down--the stairs, the playground, the bar-stools, the bookshelf you've discovered you can climb on. 

But other days…good days…great days, I too can feel the subtle movement of the floor beneath us rising. I feel the shift in my stomach, sense the great anticipation of the ding, and watch eagerly for the door to open to another room, another floor, different from the one we came from.  I look with you at the panel of buttons and experience your wonder as you scan it and think--which ones can I press and what do they all do?

Go ahead, Charlie, press the button—the blue one that opens the glass door slowly, the red one that makes the garage door go up and down, and the triangle that lets us decide to go up or down.

I’m coming with you, Charlie, and I’m terrified but thrilled to ride along as we travel up, out, slantways, sideways, longways, backways, frontways, squareways. 

There’s no better view than perched right here, with my face pressed against the glass looking out at the great, big, magnificent world through the tiny twinkle in your eye.  

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Half Naked Family Yoga

It was snowing.  Again.  By the time I got over my guilt of taking them to the gym, I realized we wouldn’t be going anywhere, not while the snow was getting thick, not while schools were closing, not while my car was making that noise.

So, while we were shoveling in our French Toast, Finny asked, “What are we doing today?”  The usual question for his tour guide.

 “After breakfast, we’re going to do yoga in the family room.  I have a DVD we’re gonna put in.”

 “What’s yoga?”

 “It’s exercise.  It’ll make us stronger.”

 “Okay!”  He got excited.

 I picked up the toys, moved the coffee table off the rug, took off my socks.

 “Why are you taking off your socks?”

 “It’s easier to do yoga that way.”  Finny took off his.

 And then we waited for Rodney Yee, our Power Yoga teacher to appear on the screen.  And suddenly, there he was, looking serene, strong, vibrant, standing in mountain pose on his mat perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean.  Where was he?  Hawaii?  St. Lucia?  Curse you, Rodney Yee.

 “Why is he all alone like that on that cliff?  Isn’t he scared?  A lion could get him.”

 We moved into forward bend.

 For a second, I imagined that, what an unexpected twist it would be if Rodney Yee suddenly got mauled by a lion while balancing in tree pose and they decided to go ahead and market and sell the disc anyway.  I smiled.

 “Finny, he’s not alone.  There’s a camera crew with him videotaping.”

 “Where are they?”

 “Well, you can’t see them because they’re behind the camera.”

 We moved back into mountain pose.

 His long, black hair was styled in a neat French braid.

 “Is he a boy or a girl?” Finny asked.

 “A boy,” I said, “He just has long hair.”

 Back to forward bend.  Inhale.  Exhale.

 He was shirtless, wearing only a pair of tight blue biker shorts, for emphasis, you know, during bridge pose, when the thrusting begins.

 “Why is he naked?”  Finny asked.

 “Well, he has shorts on,” I said, “I think he wants to show us how strong his muscles are.”

 “Oh, well I can do that.”  Finny began stripping down.  All the way.

 “Leave your undies on, Finn.” 

Charlie followed suit.  Zipping down his fleece footy pajamas and asking for help when he couldn’t tug them off his feet.

We moved into down-dog, three out of the four of us now shirtless.

Charlie was beside me, inverted in a two-year-old down-dog.  “I Silly Sally,” he said.  (Silly Sally went to town walking backwards upside down—our new favorite library book by Audrey Wood.)

“Do I have to do everything he tells me to do?” Finn asked, “Why are you doing everything he tells you to do?”

“Because he’s the teacher.  He’s teaching us how to get stronger.”

“Oh, well I just want to dance.  Can we do the Wii?”

“I want do Michael Jackson,” Silly Sally chimed in.

“I need a boo-boo brick.  Come on, Charlie.”  They retrieved ice packs from the freezer, needing a cool down after two poses.  I continued in Warrior One, Warrior Two, Down Dog, Up dog, Triangle pose, while they swirled around me, jumping off the couches, hurling stuffed animals. 

It was when I was laying on my back about to move into back bend that I saw the ice packs in their hands raised above their heads.  They were standing above me on the couch, in their underwear, ready to hurl frozen ice at me.  It was then, when the final scenes of Lord of the Flies flashed before my eyes, that I decided to wrench myself away from Rodney Yee’s island paradise and parent again.

“Whoa!  Whoa!  Do NOT throw those ice packs.  You could hurt me.  Get down.”

“I pooping,” Charlie grunted, gripping the couch. 

“Of course you are,” I said and closed my eyes.

“Why are you closing your eyes?” Finny asked.

“I’m relaxing,” I whispered.

“Why?” Finny whispered back.

“Because he’s telling me to.”

“You don’t have to do everything he tells you to do,” Finny responded, still suspicious of Rodney Yee’s dictatorial air.

“I want to relax, Finny.  Want to lay down and do it with me?”

“No.  I’m taking my little sister to ballerina class.  Come on, Charlie!”

“Yah,” said Charlie, eager to play whatever role Finny casts him in. 

The DVD ended and Finny’s little sister needed a diaper change, so I stood up, in a jolt, not at all emanating the peaceful, one-with-the-earth air that one is supposed to emanate after Savasana relaxation.

“Do you feel stronger, Mommy?”

“I do.”

“Can I see your muscles?”

 I gave him my best body builder flex.

“Oh, yeah, I feel stronger too.  See!”  And he showed me his skinny little arms while squinching up his face and growling with an intensity that made his face turn red.

“Oh, you look very strong!”  I said.  “You too, Silly Sally.”

“Let’s do yoga again sometime, Mommy!”

“Ok, Finn.  Any time.”