December 2007

Tonight, after dinner, Thing One used the potty (which he has been excellent about lately, and I think diapers are a thing of the past) and then went to get in his bath. As is his wont, he got in, then realized that what would be really fun would be to urinate in the tub, perhaps catching a stream of pee in one of the little plastic Easter eggs that are his favorite bath toys. He stood up, penis in hand, and said, “I’m gonna pee in the bath!” — but of course the pee wouldn’t come, having been recently voided into his Fisher Price musical potty chair. And this is how cool a mom I am: despite having spent ALL DAY thwarting attempts of his to fling toys through the windows and crush his sister under the weight of various large, heavy objects, and despite wanting nothing more than to take up smoking again (it’s been three years) and get drunk enough to perhaps wake up in a pool of my own vomit, in bed with some aspiring foreign rock star, rather than waking up sober, at five-thirty a.m., to the chanted, “Mama, come! I’m ready to get up!”, I said to him considerately,

“Would you like me to get you some water so you can drink it and make more pee?”

And he was delighted. Because we had a moment of perfect, copacetic understanding just then, a moment during which I really demonstrated empathy for my offspring, a moment when our hopes and dreams were united. It reminded me of the story a friend told me a few years ago, that she saw a family of three admiring a large crane at a construction site downtown, and just as she walked past them, the boy exclaimed admiringly, “You could PEE off that!”

Far be it from me to stand between a boy and his pee.

When I wrote this post about how Thing One had become an Avenger of the Meek at his preschool, I was pretty pleased, because he was on the side of justice, even though his actions (tipping over a play kitchen on the class bully) spoke of an incipient might-makes-right attitude and, frankly, I’ve always been more of a Jeremy Irons than a Robert DeNiro type of girl (see The Mission, in which Irons’s character utters the immortal “If might makes right, then love has no place in this world,” to Deniro’s before promptly getting shot). So I was okay with Thing One slapping down the brutalizers of smaller, less aggressive children, but now he seems to have transcended that realm, gotten a taste of what it’s like to subject others to the reign of terror, and gone from vigilante for justice to just plain gangster.

The change was abrupt. Even at the last community meeting (we are a co-op preschool, which means that we have monthly meetings in which people talk about their kids’ issues, or filter their issues through their kids), we were able to sit smug in the knowledge that our child was the only one there who never hit anyone. But the honeymoon is over: K. came home from the school yesterday to report that Thing One not only hit, he had kicked and shoved. A sampling of incidents:

1)”Chad,” a frequent pusher, was playing in the vicinity of Thing One when Thing One hit him. It’s unknown if there was provocation. Chad burst out crying; an adult nearby rushed to Chad’s comfort and aid, whereupon Thing One hit Chad again.

2)A melée of violence occurred in which “Cornichon,” a frequent biter, and his cohort “Buzz” pinned down Chad by sitting on his body while Thing One sat on his head. Chad’s muffled cries were eventually heard by a horrified adult.

3)”Neville” was lying on the ground crying, reason unknown. Thing One proceeded to kick him while commanding, “Stop crying!”

Disturbing incidents all, particularly the first and last, which speak of a Marine Corps-esque shut-up-and-take-it (and indulge in some homophobia and jingoism while you’re at it) attitude. Not the kind of thing we want to hear about our children. So disturbing were these incidents (and these are only the ones involving MY kid; apparently the day was a free-for-all of unrestricted violence, an orgy of assault) that one parent — Cornichon’s mother — wrote the rest of us to suggest that we AVOID AT ALL COSTS having that many children in the same room at once. I wouldn’t go to that extreme, but I confess that I was completely unfazed, in a you-got-yours kind of way, to see that Thing One had sustained injuries resulting in fingernail-shaped purple marks on his face.

When I tried to talk to him about it, here’s what happened:

Me: “So, did you hit anyone at playschool?”

T.O.: “I bonked Chad!”

Me: “Why did you bonk Chad?”

T.O.: “Because he was crying!”

Well. Okay then. That clears things right up.

Actually, I don’t think that Thing One’s actions are that surprising, mostly because he’s been dealing with a baby sister who cries a lot, and occasionally he finds this so trying that he yells from his car seat, “STOP CRYING! I’M GONNA HIT YOU!”, which is disturbing but not that shocking, as anyone who’s ever been driven to distraction by a howling baby can attest. Their cries are, after all, supposed to really jerk our chains, that being evolution’s way of making sure they get addressed, right? And I, for one, find a crying baby extremely enervating. I immediately become like a cross between Stalin and a Mexican jumping bean: steely-eyed, jittery, unable to sit still and willing to sacrifice the masses for my cause, which is getting that kid to SHUT UP already. So I can’t blame Thing One if it bugs him too, even though the prospect of his hitting his sister really fucks with my wiring, since I don’t know whom to protect (although she usually wins — evolution again, I’m sure). And him not wanting to listen to another two-year-old crying is par for the course, because a toddler’s sobbing is almost as enervating as a baby’s and, besides, doesn’t he go to school to get away from that crap?

Our conversation continued thusly:

Me: “Were you mad today at playschool?”

T.O.: “The gnome was mad. He was really GIANT. He bonked everyone down and kicked them again. He shouldn’t do that. That’s not nice. The gnome was screaming. He was screaming really loudly. He was hitting everybody. He smashed them down.”

Me (silent): Craptastic.

So the gnome is back again, the Crazy Wild Gnome, only instead of avenging the little people he has now grown to gargantuan size and is dominating the ring like Hulk Hogan in his heyday. On the one hand, I have to give the kid points for imagination (and did you notice he used TWO ADVERBS??? And he’s not even two and a half!), but on the other, this seems disturbingly like a “Mistakes were made (but I didn’t make them)” speech.

The other piece in this unpleasant little puzzle is that Thing One has been wearing underpants for a week now, and although he’s only had accidents on one day, I think he’s feeling just a teensy bit tense about it, even though it was his idea, and on the day he did have two accidents he woke up from nap swinging — screaming and hitting and howling, “I WANNA CRY!”

I could see how being fearful of disappointing every adult in your circle of acquaintance by peeing your pants could make a person a little aggro.

I don’t know how to explain the actions of the Cornichons and Buzzes in the mix. But it is the holidays — we’re gearing up for the big Dongzhi party, trying to make it hugely fun for Thing One while fielding the incredulity and skepticism of our secular Christian extended family and friends, and presumably their families are also dealing with, if not censure and a lack of respect for decisions of religious practice, huge amounts of stress in the way of finding enough presents and making enough turkey or ham and dealing with unpleasant, drunken, and/or dysfunctional in-laws and getting the children to behave themselves.


Not that I’m condoning the return of the Aggro Gnome. But I can kind of understand where he’s coming from.

My two-year-old son, Thing One, loves the music of Abd Al-Malik; we listen to his album Gibraltar in the car so frequently that I have almost all the words memorized to the first two songs (the average length of our drives). Thing One has recently taking to requesting “Al-Malik!” at bedtime, so I am forced to try to imitate French hip-hop in lieu of lullabies. Here’s a sample from my personal favorite, “12 Septembre 2001“:
Je fus choqué dans mon intime et je vous jure,
que si j’n’avais pas eu la foi j’aurais eu honte d’être mouslim.
Après ça fallait qu’on montre aux yeux du monde,
que nous aussi nous n’étions que des hommes,
que s’il y avait des fous, la majorité d’entre nous ne mélangeait pas, la politique avec la foi.

I wonder if Thing One realizes he’s steeping himself in a Franco-muslim response to the “war” on “terror”? Regardless, he loves Abd Al-Malik, and he requests him at every opportunity. Which is why this morning, I shouldn’t have been surprised when K. put on “Cars,” and Thing One started gyrating like a dervish, and he yelled,

“I’m dancing REALLY FAST!! This is Al-Malik!!”

I shouldn’t have been surprised. There was precedent for this, like the time we got up and listened to Cat Stevens and he insisted that it was Cat Power. So I shouldn’t have been caught unawares. But I was.

You know Crispin Glover’s character in Back to the Future? You know how he’s so completely clueless and naive and utterly out of sync with his peers’ snappy double entendres and slangy catchphrases that you just want to shake him, because he will never, ever get it and you fear that someday his ignorance will hurt him?

Well, I am that guy.

I just realized it this morning, although I’ve suspected for a long time. The smoking gun of my massive dork factor was a headline for this story from the New York Times, which read “Johnson was There, but Magic Was Clinton’s.” It caught my eye, of course, because it deals with one of my favorite subjects, the incandescent awesomeness of Bill Clinton and how he can show up even pro basketball players. But the headline made me realize something that had never before entered my head:

Magic. Johnson. The dude’s name is “Magic Johnson.” And he is legendary for his numerous exploits with the ladies. Which, presumably, involve his Magic Johnson. Wow. Never saw that one coming — no, sir! I was blindsided by the revelation.

And then I remembered what a more socially ept boyfriend used to joke about Diamondbacks pitcher Randy Johnson, who’s edging towards seven feet tall: “They call him ‘Big Johnson,'” he would quip, and snicker. And I never really realized what was so funny, until now, because he was big, and his name was Johnson, right?

Come to think of it, I now also realize why the two lawyers who team-taught my Constitutional debate class back in 1989 were so appalled when I caught them whispering amongst themselves and said loudly, “Mr. Hardman, are you blowing Mr. Sparks?” (I knew “blowing” was somehow intimate and a little risqué, but at the age of fifteen I had no idea exactly how intimate or how risqué.)

I’m pretty sure that there are other examples — I feel on the edges of my consciousness some suppressed memories of times during my career as a college professor when I’ve made entire roomsful of 20-year-olds guffaw in shocked and salacious glee — but I’m going to try very hard not to remember them. Because then I might have to resign, and besides, I can’t tear the image of Earvin’s Magic Johnson out of my head.

Two-year-old, at dinner table:

“I’m a Christian!” He pauses, then bellows, “Yuck!”

So I’ve been a little preoccupied with women’s right to keep their last names lately, as I wrote here. Or more to the point, I’ve been a little preoccupied with why it’s still so surprising to some people when a woman does choose to keep her last name upon marriage. And lo and behold, the New York Times published an article on just this topic, entitled, “To Be Safe, Call the Bride by Her First Name.”

Um, yeah. Right. Could that headline be any more offputting?
Call me a nitpicker; I am. I am a picker of nits, a comber for fleas and lice, a scrutinizer of the minutiae. But so are you, or you wouldn’t be reading this, and probably we agree that names are important, language is important, what you choose to be called is important — hence the reason Kanye West admitted in a recent GQ interview (yes, I read GQ, at least when Bill Clinton is on the cover), “I guess there are no white people who are really allowed to say nigga, so I guess there shouldn’t be any straight guys who are allowed to say fag.” He’s just echoing what Mari Matsuda et al. wrote in Words that Wound: what you’re called matters. And how people describe your choices matters, too.

The problem with the headline is the same as the problem with my mother-in-law saying that she didn’t “have a problem” taking her husband’s name: it implies that people who keep their names do have a problem, and it tells you that it’s not “safe,” i.e. you will have committed an act of gaucherie that may cause legions of angry feminists to come at you with bra slingshots, to assume the bride will change her name. This may well be true, but I’m appalled at the Times so carelessly seeding its readers’ minds with the assumption that choices reflective of autonomy, freedom, and self-respect for women may cause others to feel socially “unsafe.” Even if it’s true — and it probably is, as most changes that are worth anything cause people some social anxiety — it’s prejudicing the evidence.

So shame on you, careless editors of the NYT, for your retrogressive diction. But there are more horrors yet to be discovered in Grossman’s article, specifically that only seven states currently allow spouses equal rights to name-changing upon marriage; in other words, our legal system makes it difficult for a man who wants to take his wife’s name to do so. So if you don’t live in New York, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, or North Dakota (California will join them next month), write your congressperson. I’ve included a handy text for you to cut and paste:

Dear __________

Men can’t take their wife’s name upon marriage in this state? WTF???


Seriously, this is a shocking issue, more shocking even than finding out that it’s illegal to have oral sex in some states, because the name-change legalities are actually enforced and are actually current: people believe in them. People assume that when you get married, if you are a woman, you will become Mrs. HisLastName, even “feminists,” even “enlightened people,” even “liberals.” I have a friend who got married three and a half years ago; I was her maid of honor, and she fits all three of those categories. She and her husband had the ceremony outdoors in a rose garden in July, and they had a friend get minister status online so he could marry them, and there were people of all races and orientations present. And yet this dear friend who married them bellowed, on concluding the ceremony, “Congratulations MR. AND MRS. HISLASTNAME!”

This is still the prevalent attitude, and if you’re surprised that people like me keep harping on this sort of issue, you should read the comments to the Times article. You’ll find that there is no small number of people who believe that women should just shut up about naming rights, who believe that it’s “self-absorbed” to consider this issue, and who believe that if a man takes his wife’s name, it’s “emasculating.”

And even more insidiously, there’s no shortage of women who assume that, even if they choose to keep their last names, any issue of a marriage will have the husband’s last name.

It’s not what people choose to do that leaves me disheartened and disgusted. It’s the attitudes they betray in how they talk about it. And what I’ve learned today is this: you haven’t come a long way, baby. You are just beginning.

I am often amazed that I am still married, because a stable relationship, to me (as a child of ugly, ugly divorce), seems improbable at best and, in my particular case, you have not just the normal impediments to the marriage of true minds, but extraordinary ones. My impediments are rare, strong, and really, really costly; I am the Johnny Walker Blue Label of issues, from my vacuuming OCD to my caustic criticisms to my bouts of depression to my secret desire to stop participating in the messy and inefficient business of everyday life in favor of subsisting on Buck Rogers-style “meal packets” and living in a completely controlled environment. Yesterday, for example, I treated my spouse to a half-hour diatribe because he mixed up the boxes of New York and Shakespeare magnetic poetry that I was sorting, because God forbid that Times Square should rub up against forsooth, and his actions, I explained, were somehow emblematic of a blatant disregard for my personhood and autonomy that could only result from mammoth solipsism. I then proceeded to rail against the word “concupiscence,” which I find both phonetically and semantically irritating; the high levels of benzene pollution in our town, which are causing our children’s lungs to shrink and atrophy; the ethical and intellectual bankruptcy of consumer-focused preschool education; and conventional meat farming practices and how they are going to kill us all with genital cancers from the artificial hormones.

And that was before lunch.

But my husband, whose ability to remain almost totally unaffected by just about everything around him gives him an edge when dealing with a member of the high-strung and hyper-vigilant ‘worrier class’ such as myself, takes it all in stride. And somehow he manages to spend at least half the time feeling concupiscence for me, even though I won’t let him say that word, plus I’m too busy lead proofing our home to put out. And this morning, when we stopped at the grocery store, he surprised me with a copy of the new GQ, because the cover features Bill Clinton, and he knows that I can’t resist any coverage of my favorite ex-president (“He’s a lover, not a killer,” says my stepdad, and truer words were never spoken), and he even let me refuse to share it with him in the car.

Sigh. What a sweetheart.