Friday, May 16, 2008

Foggy-Minded Mama

There is something wrong with me, seriously wrong. (That was part of the original impetus for this blog, actually, but being me I never got around to saying so.) I don't get things done. I'm disorganized. I actually have fantasies of living in a different kind of environment, one in which things get done in a reasonable and orderly way. Is it weird to fantasize about order?

Maybe not, if you're the mother of a 3-year-old. Little Man's interactions with the world are, of course, appropriate for his age. He wreaks havoc quite naturally, unconsciously, with no malice aforethought. He gets interested in the refrigerator magnets, and so ends up dropping all the schedules, photos, artwork, invitations, etc. to the floor, and doesn't notice. He wants a particular tiny truck to drive on the road he's just drawn on a piece of paper, so he dumps out one of his many toy buckets on the living room rug -- and then another one, and then another one, until he finds it. He doesn't care or even notice that his parents can no longer walk through the living room without twisting an ankle on a circus train, or tripping on a large plastic dump truck. Or that, the next time he's rushing to the stairs to go up to the bathroom, he will have to pick his way carefully among the many obstacles in his way.

Of course, I could be better at training him to put things away after he makes the various messes he has every right to make. But can I, really? When I am such a slob myself? The slob thing is actually new to me. When I lived alone in a studio apartment, with minimal furniture, straightening up after myself was not a problem. I did it naturally, unconsciously, in much the same way that Little Man makes his messes. But now that I live with a family, a family with too much stuff and not enough room, and the straightening work is undone thirty-four seconds after it's done, my old system does not work, and I have not replaced it.

Part of the problem is that I read too much. If I have 30 minutes to wait while a casserole is baking, will I take the opportunity to de-clutter the kitchen table so we can eat when it's done? I do not. I sit down and read. Often a book or magazine I've read before, or a random cookbook (I like reading cookbooks), or a stray newspaper that's been sitting around for three days. Why? Because straightening up is boring and repetitive, and I have no tolerance for it.

What's wrong with me is not that I'm a slob, it's really that I daydream too much. And reading is just an extension of daydreaming for me. It's like floating. Oh, once in awhile I can get into a frenzy of action and usefulness, and I zoom through the house, cleaning and straightening and organizing as I go, like a ferocious wind, or like that machine near the end of The Cat in the Hat, when the cat-of-disorder becomes the cat-of-order. (I love that machine. I want that machine.) But mostly, action does not come naturally to me. I hesitate; I avoid. When I start a clearing project, I often abandon it halfway through.

Here's a telling incident: I was driving to the train station to pick up my partner, Little Man in his carseat in the back. I noticed the setting sun to our right, and pointed it out to Little Man (channeling my naturalist father, who died while I was pregnant; I compensate for his absence in my son's life by attempting at every opportunity to infuse Little Man with his love of nature). However, at the time I was driving through an intersection. I had stopped at the stop sign, of course, because I'm not that far gone yet. But I had forgotten that the cross street did not, in fact, have a stop sign and so the cars on that street had no reason to stop or even slow down. So I'm driving slowly through the intersection, pointing idiotically at the setting sun while oncoming traffic is attempting to get through the same intersection, only my car is in the way. I am, in fact, pointing at them, or through them, at the setting sun. And the driver immediately facing my pointing finger? A police officer. A bored police officer, frustrated with his boring job in a small town where nothing ever happens.

Of course, he pulled me over. And equally of course, he misinterpreted my pointing finger as a rude attempt to communicate to him that I wanted him to stop. He was very angry at my perceived rudeness, of course. He did not at first believe that I was pointing out the sunset to my son. He didn't even see my son at first, and actually asked, when I tried to explain, "Who were you pointing out the sunset to?" in a very sarcastic voice, as if he were talking with either a hallucinating lunatic, or a particularly unskilled liar.

Of course, he was a jerk to yell at me. But my point is, he may have been right to have a hard time believing that anyone would be so stupid as to be paying attention to the setting sun in preference to the oncoming traffic bearing down on her son's car seat, not noticing that she was pointing directly into the face of a cop. It was a moment when my slightly altered state of consciousness was made vividly clear, even to me. I'm not usually that bad; I'm actually a very good driver, but it did worry me. Is it dementia? lack of sleep? Will my son live to adulthood?

Note: at this very moment, I'm writing this post instead of grading the 106 papers sitting in front of me. Of course, maybe avoiding that is not indicative of anything except common sense.

Friday, May 2, 2008

A detour on the way to where you're going

In an earlier post, I mentioned a trip to the zoo which led to a minor epiphany.... That might be overstating the case. It was one of those weird moments when part of your mind is deeply uncomfortable, while another part of your mind is trying to tell you, "Hey -- pay attention. This might be important." (Hm, that sounds familiar. Is that a quote from Harriet the Spy? Geez, be careful what you read in your youth -- the quotes never, and I mean never, leave your, I mean my, lunatic head.)

And, um, am I the only one whose mind splits up into parts that speak to each other? (Nevermind. Don't answer that.)

Anyway, back to the story. One lovely Saturday in early spring, we took Little Man to the zoo. His idea. One or the other of us parents sometimes suggest to him, of a Saturday, "Should we go somewhere? the zoo maybe?" And often he will answer, "No, I just want to stay home." Which might just mean he's spending too much time in daycare, or it might mean that we have raised a reclusive future hermit and/or serial killer, or it might just mean that he wants to keep doing whatever he's doing: drawing, playing with trains, whatever. We're not sure. But this day he actually said to his dad, "Daddy, can we go to the zoo today?" And so we did.

I am uncomfortable with zoos. However preservation-minded they might be, however far their attempts to recreate an animal's natural habitat go, however kind-hearted individual zoo workers are, I don't like seeing animals in cages as entertainment for crowds of people walking by. There's something strange and awful about it. Still, I go; and I take my son, who appears to believe that some animals just live naturally in zoos, which chills my soul a little. But I also don't want to be the kind of parent who continually just subtracts things from her kid's life. I have recently gone vegetarian, and so I'm not buying meat. I hesitate before I let my kid have a hotdog at a picnic. I try to say No to the obvious baddies of nutrition. I don't let him watch too much T.V. I'm the gatekeeper, and I hate it.

Because my nature tells me to say Yes, yes, yes, all the time, in nonsensical repetition, like Molly Bloom or somebody. Can we dance in the supermarket? Yes! Can we climb this tree on our way to the car? Yes! Can I see what dirt tastes like? Yes! Can I take this marker and draw orange circles all over my face? Yes, damnit, yes yes yes! Can I put a pile of oatmeal on the table and "paint" with my spoon? Why not? I like giving him avenues of exploration that are, basically, harmless and fun. Zoos are more complex, but maybe the time to talk with him about my feelings about zoos is not yet. And in the meantime, my paltry admission fee is not going to keep zoos in business. (I see the flaws in that argument, yes I do. And I'm going to ignore it for now.) The elephants in particular break my heart, but I still love to see them, I admit it.

Am I ever going to get to my story? Probably not. But really it's quite simple. We got to the building where the primates are kept, and we were walking down a winding path towards the door. Outside the building was a winding stream, with bubbling jets under the surface, and plants leaning over into the water. Little Man wanted to stop and watch the stream, and so of course we stopped. He ran up and down the path, looking down over the railing into the stream. Then he sat down on the pavement, and just sat and watched the stream. I felt vastly patient, and wondered at his ability to watch water endlessly. And then I was not. Isn't it time to go? muttered my restless mind. But the primates are inside! And still he was fascinated. My husband, oh he of little patience, was delighted, and kept grinning at me. Our son the maverick, his expression said to me, as clearly as a thought bubble in a cartoon. Why should he do what's expected, and rush in to see the monkeys, when he's fascinated by the water?

In principle, and even in reality, I agree with him. Of course. Water -- moving water -- water washing over itself in interesting patterns! What could be more fascinating? And, truth be told, seeing animals in cages is, besides somewhat disturbing, rather less than fascinating, if all they're doing is staring disconsolately into space, or chewing on an old piece of lettuce for hours on end, or trying to avoid the endless eyes staring in on them. But I don't fool myself that Little Man had some beautiful, intuitive sense of the wrongness of it all. He just got interested in something, and it wasn't what one might expect.

It went on, and on, and on. It turned out that we never left the water until it was time to go home. Eventually we did move a little bit away and sit on a bench and laugh at the squirrels, but he never wanted to go inside. What made me uncomfortable, finally, was not Little Man's lack of interest in the unique attractions of the zoo, but my own discomfort with it. I heard Katherine Hepburn's voice in my head: "Let's get on with it." Moving toward a goal; approaching a destination. Why would I be so invested in that?

But this moment: this very moment; this very young 3-year-old boy, grinning and grinning and grinning over the water, and running back and forth from one end of the brook to the other, watching the mini-current and shifting shadows, and plopping down in his grinning dad's lap to watch it some more. What it came down to was something like, I wish I were more like him. And maybe I can be, just a little bit, if I keep working at it.