sideways rabbit

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Imagine (There's no TV)

If there's an upside to having multiply divorced & remarried Baby Boomer parents, it's that your child ends up having so many sets of grandparents he's bound to experience an alternative lifestyle along the way. (I'll say nothing in this post about the inevitable who-to-visit-at-the-holidays fiascoes.)

Yesterday we motored the 100 miles over the mountains to Knoxville, TN, to visit my mother-in-law "Mama C" and her long-bearded hubby L.B. ... L.B., a whip-thin fellow with an old-school Mississippi accent and love of literature, is Mama C.'s fourth husband: finally, her perfect match.

In the spot where 98.9999 percent of Americans would keep a TV, Mama C. and L.B. instead sport a ginormous portrait of their icon John Lennon. It's a silkscreen, not a flat screen, but as you can see from the scale of this photo, it's more room-filling than some people's home theaters. (I should mention that their cozy little house is just shy of 600 square feet.)

Mama C.'s brand of hospitality is an original mix of Old Hippie and Old Southern. This is a woman who brings her own spoon (an heirloom silver spoon) and china bowl to the Motel 6 when she travels. In the bowl goes her homemade granola. Some grandmas make gingerbread men. Mama C. will serve her five grandchildren cunning little "tofu men," carved with an (antique) cookie cutter and slathered in that gritty, "real" peanut butter you squeeze out in bulk at the health-food store.

Mama C. doesn't hurry, ever. She wouldn't if she could. She wouldn't any which way. One time we had to take her to the airport. We were already late -- they were holding the plane for her -- and she thought nothing of dallying in the parking lot, determined to figure out whether the striated dianthus sown in the median landscaping exactly matched the variety that once bloomed in her own mother's Myers Park home in Charlotte. My husband, who was traveling with her (they were attending his brother's wedding in Martha's Vineyard), barely escaped this scenario without a brain explosion.

On the other hand, when Beau was hospitalized for pneumonia at age 2, she was the one who read to him for hours without once glancing at her watch. Mama C. can draw out a 16-page picture book to last approximately 50 minutes. And my poky little boy, who would take half a morning deciding which way to exit the truck if we let him, is made of much the same stuff. He didn't get this quality from his own parents: Scott and I are both jumpy and irritable. Our nerves work overtime. We don't relax.

Nope, he definitely got his syrupy vibe from Mama C. It doesn't matter if it's skipped a generation: a leisurely outlook is as inheritable as olive skin or trick knees.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Freelancing and SAHM-ing (A Sticky Situation)

In this picture, my son aims a Valentine's Day lollipop at my laptop screen like a Home Guard soldier musketing deserters out of a mountain cave. (Don't you just love a random Civil War metaphor on a gloomy day?)

The deserter on this front would be me, however -- me trying to steal a moment to e-mail a local architect about an article when I clearly should have been in the bathroom guarding my little boy from the poisonous spiders he's convinced live there.

Before Beau was born, I was the arts & entertainment editor at a local newsweekly, a position I held for almost 10 years. When I became a stay-at-home mom, I inched gradually into the choppy waters of the freelance milieu. Today I write lifestyle features for regional publications, with the (very) occasional national assignment floating by to sharpen my stroke.

In the beginning, my work day was well-defined. I was blessed with a baby who took a solid four-hour nap every afternoon from the age of 12 months to 3 years. He went down at 1 and woke up at 5. And yes, bedtime was still at 8 pm and always went fine. Spiritually speaking, those were the ice-cream-and-unicorn days. I napped with my baby for the first hour or two, and worked for the last half of the Epic Sleep. And I bragged. Oh, how I bragged. I was insufferable. I feigned surprised that all babies weren't borderline narcoleptic cases like mine. What, you only get an hour's nap from yours? So sad.

Well, karma came calling like a virus requiring a helpline. During the golden era, Beau apparently stored up all the sleep he'd need for the next decade. Because he went cold turkey on his third birthday and never again took another nap (falling asleep in the car doesn't count, no matter what our mothers say). He doesn't sleep well at night, either, frequently rising at the unholy hour of 5 a.m.

So I lost the nap window for writing & editing time. (It didn't help that the economy entered quicksand territory around this time, sucking journalism down with it.) When he turned 3, B. was old enough for part-time preschool -- we shunned daycare from day one -- but neither he or I were emotionally ready for the separation. It finally happened when he was almost 4, and I gained a few half-days for my "other" work. But that preschool didn't click and when I found another I liked better, it was a program that only lasted until 11:30 a.m., more a "mother's morning out" deal than a preschool.

But he's still there, because he likes it and we like it and when all's said and done, he's still mostly at home. Which means I've had to get mighty creative to score the fewer and fewer freelance pennies I still bring in. I've held phone conversations with Japanese bonsai masters while my child smeared my arm with peanut butter. I've multitasked with a miserable lack of aplomb, shouting "I'll come wipe you in a minute!" without remembering to first put the A-list novelist I was interviewing on hold.

My favorite freelancing-while-mothering mishap occurred last summer, when I met with interior designers at a historic manor that was being staged for a high-dollar fundraising event. I was dropping by to snap some reference shots for later writing, and I had to bring Beau; I had no other choice. At one point, we were left alone in the dining room with a 100-year-old trompe l'oeil mural ... and he licked it.

I won't try to minimize how frustrating it can be balancing one's time so precariously. But the million-dollar-mural-licking moment? It was...well, you know what I'm going to say.

It was priceless.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Hoarding Between the Lines

A hoarder is only as hopeless as his or her lack of space.

My mother and her brother, aged 65 and 69 respectively, are both hoarders. It's one of their family traits, inherited along with paranoia and astoundingly youthful-looking skin. (Hey, life's a balance.) But whereas my uncle has only a 900-square-foot apartment in which to collect, pile, and furrow out paths to the kitchen and bathroom, my mom has a large home, a vacation condo, and a suite of warehouses spanning the length of a city block. (The latter hoarding venue is her husband's business, a marine-supply company, where she is in charge of accounting.) The woman has enough storage space to start her own cryonics factory. And thus no one knows she's a hoarder but the people who share her genes.

Uncle hoards antiques and vintage paper goods. Mother's more of a sentimental hoarder, saving everything from last millennium's Christmas bows to her own childhood bed. She has every book my sister and I ever read, yellowed paperback versions of the "Little House" series and the "Dancing Shoes" series and the "Wrinkle in Time" series. In a morbid mood, she likes to threaten that, someday, it will be our job to sort through this terrifying heap. When that time comes, I can only hope Mrs. Whatsit sweeps me up in a tesseract and sends me to Planet Uriel for some R&R.

I didn't get the hoarding gene, and happily, I don't think we will ever have a house big enough for me to even consider saving every greeting card ever sent to us by distant relative, erstwhile frenemy, or sinister insurance company. As the mother of an only child, though, it is tempting to hang on to a few things, milestones of bygone babyhood that will not be revisited via child number 2. In a single shoebox, I have saved a favorite receiving blanket, his first shoes, two fleece sleepers from the first six months, and his first toy.

I also kept his cradle, which he slept beautifully in for four months before worming his way into our bed. It's an antique cradle Mother had restored and fitted with a modern mattress and crib bumper. That cradle never leaves this house. It's in the basement, and it's in use, holding our camping equipment.

But that's about it. Other parents of only children -- have you held on to your child's baby things? I'd be very curious to know.

There's only one relic from my own childhood that I've consented to keep in the house, and that's a bookshelf Mother painted for my sister and me when we were four. (Irritatingly precocious in that single area, we were already by then reading books.) This was during Mother's crafty phase. She painted the bookshelf a sort of murky aquarium green, and she stenciled it in a vaguely Scandinavian motif.

My sister and I lugged that thing through college and long after. Cleaning it out today, I discovered a half-burnt stick of incense that wanted only a bottle of Rene Barbier and a soundtrack of Smashing Pumpkins to bring the 1990s back alive. I put it in Beau's room and stacked it with his books, which had seemed a lot until then. There was still space, so I filled the rest with toys and the breathing nebulizer he uses sometimes for asthma.

Almost four decades on, the bookshelf is a dingy thing, but the painted stencils are still quite clear. "You're never getting rid of me!" they seem to chirp. As long as they keep that to themselves.

Friday, February 3, 2012

He's Not Shy, He's Just Not That Into You

My son is a bit of a snob.

No surface preferences or privileges betray this. He's not a five-year-old "foodie" who goes for kale over crackers and mango lassies over chocolate milk. Not that there's anything wrong with that: We know plenty of such pint-sized epicureans in Asheville. He hasn't been to Disneyworld, although I am hoping to introduce him someday soon to Dollywood, our own mountain theme park. And he definitely doesn't have a passport. (It only took me about 15 seconds to recall at least four of his little acquaintances who had visited Europe by their third birthday. Not that there's anything wrong with that, either.)

We are a proud working-class family of small means. If we ever make it abroad, it may not happen until Beau is a strapping young man steering his aging parents down the Rue de la Paix by their arthritic elbows.

And yet there it is -- he's a bit of a snob. We first noticed this tendency when he was just five months old, in Sam's Club. He was perched inside his little bucket carrier deep inside one of those mondo-sized carts, and we passed a demo man hawking paring knives in an exceptionally loud, grating voice.

"Look at him!" said my husband, meaning the baby. If an infant can sneer, Beau was doing it. His eyebrows were arched like the Gothic roof of The Duomo, his mouth pursed in silent disbelief. He looked like a kewpie-cheeked incarnation of Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy.

A few years later, an early preschool teacher called him "aloof," a spot-on assessment I tucked into my heart with a knowing chuckle.

His frosty demeanor is usually construed as shyness. So many only children are shy: it only makes sense. Then again, my twin sister and I could have made the list of Shyest Children in Human History, if such records were compiled. It wasn't a charming shyness. It was constant fear, constant tears, a self-consciousness that manifested into a morbid disinclination to meet anyone or try anything new.

Beau's not shy in the same way. To be sure, he dislikes strangers, especially the annoying kind who bring too much desperate vitality to the table. "Hey, buddy! I wish I was your age again. You have the life! Give me five. Harder. Come on. You can do it. What's wrong? I won't bite!!!" Ask him one of the old, tired questions -- "So, what do you want to be when you grow up?" -- and he will give a practiced shrug that would be downright rude, were it not so leisurely.

I wish I'd had that self-assured shrug in my repertoire when I was growing up. Who says we have to answer all these pushy people wanting us to conform to their hollow, clownish posture? I was 30 by the time I learned to compose my face in a neutral, pleasant expression so that strangers would quit roaring "SMILE!" at me on the street. All those times I was pegged by the Smile Nazis, I'd never been particularly sad to begin with. I was just being myself, thinking to myself. A trifle gloomy, but all right. I was born with a sad face -- I can't help it.

I'm grateful that, so far, Beau's perceived aloofness isn't holding him back too badly in the social department. (Given the chance to ease into a mode of affection, he will give his all. He has certain friends he adores, like the one we met yesterday at the nature center, who was very good-natured about the fact that Beau was gleefully rubbing his head against him like a cat. At home, he's so close to his daddy they're like complementary ingredients in a burrito.)

It's even served him well, in some cases. Like when he was waiting for his turn in his first karate exhibition and, while he should have been nervous and high-strung, instead sat stock-still and assumed a look of such boredom I could have sworn he was preserving his chi.

I should probably talk to him about not appearing so darn haughty when a certain kind of person pelts him with their forward questions and demands for vivacity. But first, I'm taking a lesson.