Sunday, June 29, 2014

What's Biting You?

The weather doesn’t match the scene, like it always does in those bad British horrors from the ‘60s that I adore.

No blinding studio flashbulbs that simulate lightning, followed by falling soup pots (thunder), and buckets of water (downpour) thrown against the bedroom window of Dracula’s voluptuous, virgin victim. Instead, it’s a ravishing June afternoon, the kind of day when brides marry and graduates toss their caps to the clouds…

It’s a creepy scene on this breathtaking day. I am walking by Washington Cemetery on Bay Parkway, underneath the McDonald Avenue El. No one upright for blocks around, except me. Spooked by my surroundings, I stride quickly in my orange, stacked espadrilles, but there’s no escape.

Mortality bites me, like fake fangs to the neck: I turn 50 in a year and change.

I swoon, my breath catches in my chest, sheathed in a billowy, polyester nightgown. I perch upon the bottom rung of the graveyard fence, and peer over. Tombstones as far as the eye can see, and in the distance, the F train speeding by... Then, like a phony Hammer Studio storm exposed to the floodlights of a studio “morning”, my fear evaporates. Arms raised to shield his bloodshot eyes from the rising sun of my resolve, Christopher Lee cowers before my balkiness.

I’m prone to expressing my thoughts out loud, on the street: to the lamppost, the mailbox, the dumpster, compelling passersby to look for my Bluetooth. I don’t own one. Today, I’m not just mumbling to myself. I’m screaming. I’ve been bit hard. “Back up you bloodsucker!” I beat the prince of darkness back to his tomb with a 4-inch espadrille and drive the heel through his heart. (In reality, I’m confronting a line of 18-wheelers parked alongside the graveyard). 
“Hold up Baron!” I offer a blood curdling cry to an unshakable yellow schoolbus, “This bride ain’t ready to cozy up in the coffin with Drac just yet!!”

No one’s around to see me. I’m getting into this, acting out the Hammer Studio formula, overacting it. Swooning, thrashing my arms, lightheaded from the loss of blood. I turn to a cluster of gravestones, all relatives:

“Hey Baums! What do I want to do here, right here, on the streets of Brooklyn?? I’m pointing down to the asphalt, to my toenails, peachy pink and wiggling. What do I want to do here, before I go there?” Now I’m pointing over the fence, jabbing my finger at immobile, grey obelisks.
I compose myself and staunch the flow at the jugular with a vintage hanky from my collection.
What do I want to do before I pull the lid of eternity shut?

For starters, I want to:
  • reduce my carbon, espadrilled footprint
  • plant--and nurture--trees in East New York and Bushwick
  • implement battery and clothing recycling in every apartment building in Brooklyn
  • introduce curbside composting boro-wide (not just in neighborhoods amenable to it)
  • broaden block participation in Brooklyn Botanic Gardens’ Greenest Block in Brooklyn Contest  
  • build garden beds in every schoolyard and playground
  • plant tomatoes in illegal driveways
  • find a solution to styrofoam clamshell containers
  • open hearts and minds
  • close refrigerator doors
Those are my splashy dreams. I get puffed up over them. The school science lab’s bearded lizard is home with us for the summer.  We took him out of his tank today and planted him in the sunshine. He was so happy he pooped and puffed his frill. That’s me when I indulge in my big dreams. It’s good to get out of the tank sometimes.

Otherwise, my bucket list is unoriginal. Before I kick it, I want to:
  • return to Paris in springtime (and in August, when the Parisians are gone)
  • eat pineapple pork, sway my hips, and swim with the dolphins on Waikiki Beach
Also, I want to try some stupid things like:
  • jumping out of airplanes
  • surfing in storms at sea
  • singing at The Apollo
When I put myself back in the tank, out of the dazzling rays, I think about  the little stuff. The stuff I want to do that no one’s gonna notice but me:
  • I want to have the patience to hold the hand of a child, not my own, as she lurches around the perimeter of a roller rink for the first time.
  • I want to raise sons who treat themselves—and women—well.
  • I want to cultivate roses with real fragrance.
Cemetery or no, each day presents an opportunity to ask yourself  this question: 

What’s biting you?

Monday, June 9, 2014

Daddy's A Player

I don’t play.

I cook. I sort darks from whites. I wash, dry and fold. I sign class trip forms. I lead the boys to the dental hygienist for bi-annual cleanings with chocolate toothpaste.

but I don’t play.

I don’t sit down for those strategy board games: Risk, Stratego, Axis & Allies, Africa Quest. I don’t build snowmen, play Wii or design treasure maps that lead to chests buried on the beach at dawn.  

Daddy does those things.

Oh, maybe I played in the beginning, a little. I hopped gingerbread men over the molasses swamp in Candyland and pushed the pawns of Chutes and Ladders. Maddening Milton Bradley classics, you taste victory, but inevitably lose these games which stretch out till dinnertime and end in tears. Mine.  

For a while I tried to engage the boys in crafts:

shamrock stamps carved from potatoes at St. Patty’s, hand turkeys at Thanksgiving, sugar cookie decorating at Christmas. 

The sugar cookies were most popular due to, well, the sugar, but overall, the boys’ lukewarm response to crafting did not embolden me to crack craft books with 3-D diagrams and hard-to-find supplies.

Then it was cooking:

dipping slippery chicken breasts in flour, then egg, then bread crumbs. I was inspired. The boys weren’t. Breading cutlets left them cold.

I even pitched chores as play:

Today the little one is competent at filling muffin pans with cupcake liners, watering African violets and dusting the piano with “lemonade spray” (Pledge). But he isn’t fooled. These are chores and little man gets paid for his time.

Then I just gave up.

That’s not quite right. It’s not that I went cold turkey on the hand turkeys.

I still sled. ...and the little one follows along to my old school Tae-Bo tapes, kicking at the TV and punching the air.

I still lead raspberry picking expeditions, but I was plucking black caps and red raspberries long before the kiddos came along. And I’ll carry on without them when they realize they can stay home and just wait for me to return from the thickets, sweaty, scratched up and eaten alive, swinging milk pails brimming with nature’s candy.

Notice a pattern?

Last weekend we were back at Lefrak Lakeside in Prospect Park with friends. The ice was thawed, the Zambonis sent to long-term parking.   50 bucks for a backache, I bent over for an eternity to lace 3 sets of roller skates.  Then I failed to fasten wrist and knee pads securely and readjusted these for another eternity.  Finally we hit the rink. The boys clung to me like invasive vines.  

I felt a resentment coming on.

No one helped me learn to skate. I fell on my arse plenty until I was looping figure eights on the asphalt in front of my house.  Learning to skate is just ugly, there’s no way around this. And no one can do it for you.  Despite this obvious fact, the mom who got us here in the first place, hosted my parasites. Her trunk became the great oak around which my ten-year-old twined himself until I said ENUF! I wouldn’t let them attach themselves to the rink walls either. By day’s end the brothers had loosened their stranglehold on stable supports.  Virginia creepers no more, they’d stepped up to roller derby robots with jerky limbs. Ugly. But they were on their way…

The pattern?  The kids follow my lead now. They do what I want to do.

Here’s the question: How guilty do I feel that I don’t do stuff just for my kids anymore?

Here’s my answer: Not very.

I must get this from Nana. Nana doesn’t play either. She picks the “family movie”. It’s never animated and never G. It’s usually PG-13, occasionally R. She likes those formulaic sports films. The ones  where—against all odds— the crappy team rallies to win the little league pennant (Bad News Bears) or state championship (Hoosiers) or exhibition game (Mighty Ducks) or almost wins an olympic medal (Cool Runnings) or where the hero becomes the first-round pick in the NFL (The Blind Side). Every year, usually around the All-Star Break, we watch the Bad News Bears. I cuddle up with my boys, a bowl of popcorn and—swoon—Walter Matthau. Ahh... the foul slurs slipping from the side of his Schlitz-slinging mouth. Obscene, inappropriate and hilarious.

At bedtime, Nana reads to the boys from a unabridged, unillustrated volume of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. She extrapolates the moral and glosses over gruesome scenes of twisted sexuality and mutilated toes. On these nights I sit with the boys, rubbing their feet till they’re unconscious.

Daddy—by contrast— is a player.

  • Down in the sand
  • Up in the tree
  • On the toboggan
  • On the exercise mat
  • On the mini-golf course
  • Standing over board games
  • Running alongside bicycles

Daddy does like the tedious strategy games that take over the dining room table for weeks. But as for the rest of it, he’s doing it for them, not himself.  
He doesn’t get his kicks from running alongside the unstable two-wheeler of a hysterical 6-year-old. He hates being ambushed when he walks in the door. Still, he submits to 10-minute rounds of Attack Daddy by two sons whose combined weight approaches 100 pounds.  BRRRRRRING!! When the egg timer goes off he limps upstairs to change out of his work clothes.

The boyz love Daddy.

Daddy also reads to them. Every night. Chapter books that don’t give nightmares.  Adventures, histories, mysteries.  Where he gets them I’m not sure. Online? Tag sales? Used bookstores?  His mother’s attic?  No matter. The boys love winding down with Daddy.

A few days ago, after supper and before Daddy got home, my big son asked:

“Mom, can you play with me like you used to?”

I was floored. Playing is Daddy’s domain.

My son’s  expression was hopeful. I inhaled deeply and stared straight into my son’s soul on the exhale.  This was the spring we gave up little league baseball.

“Would you like to go out front and toss the ball around?”  His face lit up. I hit a tree, a parked car and lost the ball in the bushes. He found it. I paused to chat up neighbors returning home from work. He didn’t seem to mind any of this.

We’ve been tossing the baseball pretty steadily ever since. The next rainy evening I’ll suggest a 3-minute word game. I can manage that:

“Anyone up for a game of Boggle?”

This post is dedicated to all you Devoted Dads...
Who assemble impossible toys...
Who read aloud at bedtime, apply sunscreen, and delouse...
Who bring home the bacon and fry it up on Saturday morning...
Who eat the broken, slightly-burned cookies and
Leave the best ones for your kids!