The Outer Banks
This morning on the drive to work I picked an old and relatively long playlist, and set it to shuffle. Just before I got to the office, "The Outer Banks," by the Album Leaf came on.
Back in the mid-2000s, my brother started making mix CDs for me. He's always been a lot more in the know about music than I have, and while I can't remember if he just started making them or if I asked him to help me find new music, those CDs formed the foundations of my music tastes for a decade. That song, "The Outer Banks," was on one of the first CDs he made me, and for several years that's what it made me think of. The CD, the other songs on the CD, and him.
A few years later, my son was born. On his first birthday, I made a slideshow of photographs and video clips from his year—a practice that has become a birthday tradition for each of my children. They look forward to it, and I enjoy it.
I've used a lot of different music for my kids' birthday slideshows, and I honestly can't really remember most of them, or which one I used for which year. Especially because after the first few, I started using music that I could pay to license, instead of just ripping CD tracks. The music I use now fits its purpose and, most importantly, it's legal, but it's fairly generic-sounding and forgettable. I do remember that first one, though. I remember many of the images, most of the video clips, and how I cut it together with the music. I used "The Outer Banks" for that one. And now that's what I associate that song with.
The funny thing is, I remember the process of making that slideshow. I remember listening to the music over and over, looking at these images and videos, all of which depicted scenes from the very recent past. My son wasn't quite a year old yet, but I was already nostalgic. I remember looking at these pictures and listening to this song—which, admittedly, builds in a pretty dramatic and emotive way, something that would be completely appropriate for a montage or climactic scene in an early 2000's indie movie. And I remember feeling the time slipping away already. I remember feeling how fast it was all going. How it was objectively silly for these moments to feel far away already, but that they did feel that way, and some day they actually would be distant in a real way. I remember feeling the weight of that, of being in between my current memory and the memory that I knew I'd have in the future. How it felt poignant, but I knew it would be even more so later, and how I could already feel the echoes of those future feelings.
Listening to that song this morning, yes, I did think of the pictures. I did think of my son as a baby, my son who is already as tall as his mom now. And that was poignant, in a way that I both expected back then and that I didn't understand and couldn't have been ready for. But perhaps just as acute, maybe even more so, was the feeling of distance from myself at that age. Of being a person who'd never made a birthday slideshow for his kids yet. A person who didn't know what it was like to have two kids, or three. Listening to this song, that self felt very far away, and it also felt very close, like I could lay the feeling of today right on top of the feeling from then, overlapping so closely that I couldn't tell the difference.
Looking back, life seemed simpler then—though, it only looks that way from here. Then, nothing seemed simple. Maybe it seemed simpler because so much in my life was new. Last weekend, J and I went out for dinner and stopped for coffee afterwards. I remarked how different it tasted from the coffee I usually drink, and how all coffee tastes mostly like coffee, how your first cup of coffee when you're young just tastes like that, like coffee, but how after decades now, you're used to it, all you notice is the small differences, the nuances. Life is like that, too.
There are times when I wish I could go back. Or maybe I just wish I could be as young and energetic and resilient and sure as I didn't know I was then. Maybe what I wish is for this, now, not to end, because I know, always, that it will—I knew it then, too. Mostly what I want is just more time. Things are nuanced and complicated now, but they are new and simple, too. Things are always newer and older than they seem.
Life is strange, and short, and long. It's beautiful, too. I hope you're well.
My son has a pet crayfish. Which, I suppose, is another way of saying that I have a pet crayfish. This isn't something I was expecting to ever say. But then, my experience of parenthood can more or less be summed up by the fact that I have an actual list of "Things I Never Thought I'd Say."
Red—that is the crayfish's name, and also its color, more or less—came to live with us in May, having previously been part of my son's third-grade unit on life science. He (my son assures me that Red is male) spends most of his time lying around on his side, a disconcerting habit in an animal that lacks eyelids, making it look like he is constantly dying or already dead. When I see him doing that, I tap on the side of his aquarium, my finger making a dull, ringing thump on the plastic, and Red immediately rights himself and either brandishes his tiny pincers at me or scurries into the little flowerpot we've provided him for "privacy." These are Red's three general states of being: depressive malaise, ridiculous bravado, and hiding in darkness. Which, when I put it that way actually makes the smelly little creature kind of relatable.
When I was a kid, a few years younger than my son is now, we lived in a cabin in Bixby Canyon, maybe a mile or so in along the canyon floor from where the creek ran under the famous bridge that causes so many traffic problems now, lines of parked cars a quarter mile in each direction as the tourists jockey for a spot to take the same exact photograph as the people they're elbowing out of the way, hundreds of them every day. There weren't so many of them back then, but either way we had our own little bridge as well, though ours was just a little wooden foot bridge and not a historic concrete arch. The creek ran through our front yard, and in the shadows cast by that little foot bridge, under the rocks, there were rainbow trout and crayfish, though we called them crawdads. We would pass the time, sometimes, by tearing up slices of American cheese, rolling the bits into balls and dropping them over the side of the bridge to feed the trout and the crawdads. The first time I saw my mother's boyfriend doing that, I thought he was throwing pebbles at them. I tossed in a big rock, which made a satisfying splash before it crushed one of the crawdads. I got a spanking for that.
We lived in that cabin about a year, from one winter to the next. I learned a lot of things that year. I learned which spots in the creek the crawdads liked to lurk in, and how if I dipped a blade of long grass in front of them, they'd grab it and wouldn't let go even after I pulled them out of the water. I learned what crawdads taste like when my mother's boyfriend decided to take us to a different part of the creek and showed us how to catch a whole bucketful, how they turn bright red when you boil them, how to tear the tails off and suck the meat out. I learned that sometimes my mom's boyfriend would be interested and affectionate with us, and sometimes he would be sullen or angry, but I never quite learned what would make the difference, or how to anticipate his moods. I eventually learned that I wasn't responsible for his moods, but not that year.
I asked my son the other day if he loved Red. He thought about it for a second, then cocked his head and said "No, but I'll still be sad when he dies." It seems like this is our main interaction with Red apart from feeding him and changing his water once a week—that is, waiting for him to die. Crayfish can live several years according to what we looked up online, but what we heard from teachers and other kids' parents was that they usually only last a few weeks after the kids take them home, and, indeed, Red has already outlived the rest of his third-grade science class cohort. It seems a little strange to me, sometimes, that the boy is so attached to this creature that gives so little back, but this is what he's like. He cares. I think sometimes that he's better than I am, and that's a good feeling.
(Briefly) Empty Nest
When he was a puppy, our dog slept beside our bed, just within reach of my fingertips if I let my arm hang down from under the blankets. Then, when our son was born, the dog moved into his room and helped keep bad dreams away while the boy slept. But ever since our first daughter was born, and now, still, with three kids in the house, he sleeps in the hallway, the better to keep watch over the entire family each night.
This week the kids—all three of them—are hundreds of miles away, visiting their grandparents. The dog is still sleeping in the hallway, though. Perhaps he wonders where they are. Perhaps he feels some stress over not being able to protect them. Some day none of them will live here anymore, but, already almost eleven years old, it's unlikely that the dog will live long enough to see even the first of them go.
This is a melancholy thought, but it's not at all out of character for me.
With the kids away and me being out of the office, I've had few responsibilities for the past week. Notwithstanding the relentless march of terrible news, this should be a time for me to enjoy myself. And it has—J and I have eaten at interesting restaurants, seen some good movies, visited art exhibitions, and even spent one afternoon wine-tasting. Both of us have also spent time working on personal projects. In a lot of ways it's been glorious.
Over and over, though, I keep thinking about how hard it's going to hit me when the kids finally move out for real. How this is, in fact, the goal of parenting: to prepare your children to go out into the world and leave you behind. How brief the time is that you get to have them close. How some day they will all be too big for me to lift and hold in my arms, and how I most likely won't even notice the last time I do so.
While they've been gone, J and I dismantled our youngest's crib and took it and the rocking chair out of her room, and replaced them with a real bed. The crib went to J's sister's house, where in a few months it will belong to our newest nephew, after he's born. The rocker very nearly went to Goodwill, but at the last minute J changed her mind, realizing that she couldn't part with it yet. I'm nearly always sentimentally attached to objects, but J almost never is. There's something powerful, though, that both of us feel about the fact that we no longer have babies in the house. For nine years we've been comforting our children in that chair, reading to them, singing to them, lulling them to sleep. It's a lot to move on from. We'll get there, but not just yet.
A couple of days ago I went into my son's empty room, lay down on the bed, and just stared at the ceiling for a while. He has two Pokémon posters taped up there, and a paper Christmas tree from 2012, a few splashes of color against an otherwise plain, white background. His room still had the slightly musty, slightly sweet smell of boy, and I wondered how long it would take for it to completely fade. It struck me how strange and melodramatic and possibly creepy I was being, but it was still another minute or two before I got up.
The kids will be home tomorrow, bringing with them all the joys and aggravations that kids do. I can't wait.
I can hear the little bear in the kitchen, the feet of the step-stool scraping on the tile floor as she climbs on top of it. “I WANT A SNACK,” she announces. The space of a heartbeat passes, maybe two. “I WANT A SNACK,” she repeats, stretching the last word into something like a musical phrase, complete with a crescendo and a fermata.
“Could you ask me that more politely, please?” I say, standing up and putting my book down.
“Please can I have a snack?” she asks, her voice quieting and rising in pitch.
“Yes,” I say. “Thank you for asking nicely.” She rejects my first four offerings—applesauce, a graham cracker, a cup of yogurt, a tangerine—before finally settling on Goldfish crackers as acceptable. “Sank you,” she says as I place the bowl before her, then turns away. I have been dismissed.
“Little Bear, can I have a hug?” I ask.
She laughs. “No!” I am, of course, being ridiculous.
When my youngest was an infant, I called her a berry when she was sweet, and a bear when she was surly. Given her name, these endearments were low-hanging fruit, to be sure. But by the time one is up in the night with his third child, the impressiveness of wit or ingenuity has lost a bit of its urgency; one takes the fruit that is at hand. As tends to happen, one name stuck and the other didn’t, so now at the ripe old age of two years, she is our Little Bear.
Unlike her brother—currently experiencing a growth spurt that makes him devour his meals quickly and then go in search of more—Little Bear likes to linger over her food, picking at it as she plays or sings or watches a video on my tablet. She will nibble until it’s gone, or until something else catches her attention. With two older siblings and a dog, the latter is not an uncommon occurrence. I’ve only managed to get two or three pages further in my book before I hear the slap of her tiny feet as she races down the hallway. “EXCUSE ME!” she shouts. “EXCUSE ME!” She opens her brother’s bedroom door. “EXCUSE ME! DO YOU WANT TO PLAY WITH ME!”
“No,” he says.
She turns to her sister, who is lying on the floor beside their brother’s bed, apparently staging some sort of battle between some Lego Star Wars characters and some Pokémon figurines. “DO YOU WANT TO PLAY WITH ME?” Little Bear asks.
“No,” says her sister.
I hear the door close, and the quick pip-pip-pip-pip-pip of her feet as she runs back toward the living room, where I am setting my book down again. “THEY SAID NO!” she reports. I brace myself. She glares at me for a few seconds, then abruptly turns and goes back to her crackers and the video which has continued playing during her absence.
When you are the smallest person in a house full of opinionated people, you must find ways to assert yourself, and Little Bear does this with aplomb. From her very first day, two things have been clear: she is aware, and she has opinions. It is a cliché to say that a person is “a force to be reckoned with,” and yet this is what she does. In every interaction, she demands that you consider her. I tell myself—and everyone else, really—that I’m heartened by this, that I hope she never loses this insistence, that it will serve her well when she’s grown. I also often (usually) add a rueful grin and the caveat, “I wish she’d take it a little easier on me and her mom sometimes.” But when I’ve put her to bed at night (singing one song to her and one to the stuffed animal by her side, laying the blankets over her in exactly the order she requires) what I find myself turning over and over in my head are all the ways that the world tells little girls to make themselves small and soft and pliant. I can’t protect her from this fate; all I can do is try to prepare her for it, and a strong self-regard and confident assertiveness seem a good armor. Or so I hope.
Perhaps twenty minutes have passed—long enough for me to become engrossed again in the story I’m reading—when I feel a touch at my knee and then Little Bear is pushing the book out of her way and climbing over my lap and onto the chair beside me.
“Hello, Little Bear” I say.
“Oh!” she says, and giggles. “Hello!” She stretches her legs up, crossing one ankle over the other and setting them on my lap. “I’m not touching you!” she says.
“Oh really? Are those your feet?” I ask.
“And is that my leg?”
“No! That’s my leg!” She laughs uproariously; that the thigh serving as her footrest belongs to her should be obvious, but she has decided not to hold it against me. She throws her arms around me. “Snuggle time!” she declares. “Snuggles are good!”
Yes. They are.
Beeswax. It makes a great lip balm. It's also something you should mind--but only your own.
You have probably seen this week's "Are You Mom Enough?" cover of Time. At least, judging from my Facebook feed and the blog buzz about it you have. I have no doubt that the photographer, Martin Schoeller, and Time's cover editors were fully aware of how riled up that cover would get people. It is, after all, exactly the kind of thing about which people these days feel a need to opine. You know what, though? This is not something that falls into the category of "your beeswax."
"But! But!" I can hear the objection coming already. "Don't you think she's screwing up her kid by keeping him on the breast so long? My God, don't you think it's weird?"
Yes, of course I think it's weird. You know what else I think is weird? Something you do in your family. Yes, you--all of you. And of course I think she's screwing up her kid, not because she's extending breastfeeding or following attachment practices but because she's a parent. You are screwing up your kids too. So am I.
Look, every single one of us is going to get it wrong with our kids. The best we can hope to do is to minimize the damage we cause and give our kids the means to cope with the rest.
And aren't there enough real problems in the world without having to find new things to get upset about? On the scale of things for me to care about, this is somewhere between how other people make their hot dogs and whether or not they put sweaters on their pets. Are they doing something I wouldn't do? Sure. Does it affect me? No, not really.
So, sure, maybe I think it's weird if some family wants to breastfeed their kids until they're twelve. But odds are, their kids are going to be fine, and parenting is hard enough on a good day; the last thing most of us need is some nosy blowhard butting into our lives to tell us what we're doing wrong.
It does cut both ways, of course. That other family over there? The one that bottle fed from day one and Ferberized their kids? Those kids are going to be fine, too. Maybe that's not how you would raise your own children, but it's none of your business.
None of us are perfect. We're all doing the best we can. Let's all just take a deep breath and get back to minding our own beeswax.
My Latest at Life As A Human: Raising Respectful Sons
Back in the early stages of my wife’s pregnancy, before we knew we would be having a son, people often asked me whether I wanted a boy or a girl. My response usually went something like this: “Well, I’d be happy either way, I think, and I don’t have a preference, really. I don’t want one more than the other. Honestly, though, the idea of having a daughter kind of terrifies me.” That’s the thought that occurred to me again Monday morning when I ran across this article in fellow Life As A Human author Schmutzie’s Twitter feed.