Here’s the link to my latest Naperville Patch article. It’s new, it’s fresh, it’s about screaming children.What’s not to like?
Here’s the link to my latest Naperville Patch article. It’s new, it’s fresh, it’s about screaming children.What’s not to like?
I don’t really let what other people say about me bug me too much. Not that I don’t have my moments of monumental insecurity over some seemingly innocent remark, but I can usually recover and get back to a normal background level of neurosis quickly.
Lately, though, I’ve been hearing things said about me that have me questioning some fundamental self-truths I hold dear. People are saying I’m nice . . .and meaning it.
Now, I know many things about myself. I am smart. I am funny. I am a perfectionist. I like to argue. I’m demanding. I’m fair-minded. I expect the same of other people.
But I am not nice. Nice people are, well, nice. I can be generous. I’ve been known to be empathic. I can even be silly and frivolous. But nice?
The first person to accuse me of being nice also noted that I am cheerful and optimistic. I know! I know! Me! Cheerful! Optimistic! Obviously, this was someone who knew me not at all. And, indeed, she was a reader responding to my Hanukkah column on my son’s refusal to participate in our Hanukkah festivities.
The short story is this: I was able to get him to help me light the driveway menorah despite his insistence that he, as an atheist, would not be celebrating the holiday. I wrote that I hoped he would keep Hanukkah with his own children when the time came. One reader noted how difficult it is being Jewish in Naperville and how her sons love Hanukkah and celebrate it despite being marginalized by the surrounding society. Another reader jumped on the “life sucks as a Jew in Naperville” bandwagon, giving me a literary pat on the head for my cheerful, optimistic presentation of what is the drear reality of the west suburban diaspora.
Never having been accused of being either cheerful or optimistic, I laughed out loud. I called my husband; we laughed out loud together. I’m pretty sure I told my sister and she laughed out loud, too. First, though, she said, “You? Optimistic?” Or maybe that was my best friend. The whole “Janice as an optimist” thing was so disorienting it could have been the cat saying, “You? Optimistic?”
One person who doesn’t know me saying I was nice, cheerful and optimistic (I’m laughing while I type it! You’re laughing while you read it. I know you are. It’s ridiculous!), could easily be dismissed, but people who know me are saying it, too!
I’ll grant you that the sales clerk at the local music store is hardly a bosom buddy, but we’re on close enough terms for the man to make a fairly accurate assessment of my temperament. I swear I haven’t been on my best behavior when making my weekly—sometimes biweekly—appearances at the place. I have even been downright rude at times! And yet, just a few days ago, said clerk—we’ll call him “Bob”—said I was nice.
Now, he didn’t just say, “Hey! You’re nice!” He couched it in a very nice compliment about my appearance. “I haven’t seen you in a while,” said Bob. “You look younger!”
“Thank you,” I said. “I’m not feeling younger. I feel pretty old and tired, actually.”
“It’s probably because you’re nice,” Bob explained.
According to Bob, another woman he hadn’t seen in a while came in looking considerably older than she ought.
“What does being nice have to do with looking young?” I asked.
“Oh, all that being mean makes you look older.”
I saw no point in arguing with Bob about genetics, cleaning living and exercise. I left him with his delusional opinion of me. He told me I looked younger!
I’m not sure why I don’t feel very nice about being called “nice.” The nicest woman I know is a good friend. I like her a lot. She’s smart and funny, like me. But I believe she’s also got an unshakable conviction that the world is a good, good place. My strongest evidence of that is her existence.
My dad even told me I was nice recently. I suppose that shouldn’t blow me away, but it does. I know my parents loved and respected me but they weren’t exactly the cheerleading type. They were as aware of my failings as my fabulousness.
We were sitting in the living room of his home at two in the morning. We’d been trying to get him to sleep for longer than ten minutes at a time since about nine the night before. He’d brushed his teeth, put on his jammies, had his warm milk and gotten tucked into bed. He had pillows and blankets and all the things he could need to get his chemo-wracked body to submit. It wouldn’t. He would drift off for a few minutes, then some demon—anything from needing to pee to feeling driven to escape—would force him from the bed.
After five hours and two Ambien, we gave up. We sat in the living room, dad and I and the feeding machine. It whirred. The clock ticked. And my father stared into the dark wondering what he’d done to deserve his lot. “Everyone is so nice,” he said. “You, Alan, the kids. You’re all so nice.” As if whatever he’d done to earn this punishment should deny him the right to human kindness as well. We sat a few minutes longer, listening to the pump push food into his body. “Dad,” I finally said, “I may be nice, but I’m also tired. Let’s try to go back to bed.”
He did go back to bed, but he didn’t sleep any better. Since then, we’ve found out he also has Parkinson’s disease. While my dad was pretty confused, I know he wasn’t demented or hallucinating that night. He thinks I’m nice. So does Bob. And so do some of my readers. There are probably whole bunches of people who think I’m nice. It wouldn’t be nice to argue, though, so I guess I’ll have to suck it up. Hell, it might be nice being nice.
Profound, I know, but some days just really suck. I should have known that today would be one of them.
The day started like this:
“Mom,” my son said, “the dog pooped all over his crate.”
Wonderful, I thought. “But Dad cleaned it up,” he added. I breathed a mental sigh of relief. I hugged and kissed my son goodbye and went back to bed.
A little while later, my daughter and I got up, got dressed and went downstairs for breakfast.
“Mom,” my daughter said, “the dog pooped in his crate.”
“I know, honey,” I said. “Daddy cleaned it up.”
“No, Mom,” she said, “he pooped again. Looks like he barfed, too.”
I screamed a mental scream of anguish then I did what a mother has to do at 8 a.m. I cleaned the poopbarf, made a pot of tea, toasted bread for my daughter’s breakfast, toasted buckwheat pancakes for myself, made lunch for my daughter, turned the toasted bread into cinnamon toast then ate my pancakes standing up while drinking the tea. I did, of course, wash my hands between the poopbarf and the tea making.
Following dropping daughter off at school, I drove to Chicago to visit my psychiatrist. It is a measure of the suckitude of my day that this visit was the highlight. The week prior, I had driven down to his office and found him not in it. The door was, in fact, locked. After thinking him dead in the office, it occurred to me that it might be me that was in error. Indeed, I had the wrong day. So, it was with great relief that I saw him today, alive, in his office. We had quite the little laugh over my misadventure. We also discussed why I had put my empty coffee travel mug in my coat pocket and brought it to the session. I had no answer. I paid him $200 for a half hour for him to tell me that people do that kind of thing.
After my session with Dr. Funnypants, I drove to Aurora where I taught reading skills to a handful of kids who really don’t want to be there with the exception of the one who stalks me. Let’s call him Stalker Boy. He meets me at the front door of his school every day. None of the other kids in the class do, but he is there every day that I am there. If I’m late, he has the school secretary give me a tardy slip. He determines when I am late, not me. I still have not figured out what time it is that constitutes lateness in his mind. Of course, today he gave me a tardy slip.
The unmotivated kids and I ground through the day’s lesson. Stalker Boy interjected comments about his day, my hair, the sharpness of his pencil, the quality of snack the school had supplied, my children, and the weather. Finally, the hour was up and the unmotivated skipped merrily from the room. Stalker Boy walked me out the door as he does every day that I am there. He made sure I turned my tardy slip back in at the front desk.
I drove home, found my children glued to screens, stuffing their faces with relatively healthy snacks. The dog had stuffed his crate with further poopbarf. My children, perhaps wisely, did not tell me that the crate was full again.
I cleaned the poopbarf and made dinner. I did, of course, wash my hands between those activities. The kids and I downed the entire batch of linguine and clam sauce, leaving nothing for my husband. He can add a little suckishness to his day, I thought, as I slurped up the last linguine noodle.
We can fast forward through the rest: attempt to write newspaper column; testy phone call with sister regarding assistance in caring for tremendously ill father; mad dash to gymnastics class; discover last-class show is planned; decide that it is better to be a marginally attentive parent at the gym show than to miss column deadline; write column on heroin use with nosy dad hanging over shoulder; peek up from writing every other line to catch daughter doing cute things on dangerous equipment.
When I got home, I left a message for my sister apologizing for my testiness, emailed my column to my husband to proof, then ran upstairs to fulfill my mother-son bonding responsibility of watching “Top Chef” together. The suckiness continued as my favorite contestant, the Zen-like Beverly was eliminated in favor of the paranoid Sarah. At the first commercial break, I checked with my husband to see if he had gotten the column. He hadn’t. I checked my email and found that it was doing the thing that I have taken it to the Apple Genius to repair only to find that it won’t do that thing for the Genius. Mail works fine when the boyishly handsome young Genius is in the vicinity. Mail is a bitch to the harried middle-aged woman just trying to get her column done on time.
Eventually, I got the column to my husband and edited it, ignoring his suggestions. He could deal with a little more suck in his day, I reasoned. I got an email from my sister which I should have ignored until I was having a day that didn’t suck as much as this one did. So, my response to my sister probably sucked.
Tomorrow will be a better day. I’ll grovel a little . . ok, I’ll grovel a lot with my sister. I’ll start taking deep breaths as soon as I see Stalker Boy. And I’ll get my teeth cleaned. Yeah, that will be a much better day.
I wanted a girl. No question. Oh, sure, I told people I just wanted a healthy baby, but really, I wanted a girl. So, when my son was born, it was more than drugs and exhaustion that had me on emotional overload.
I was a feminist. I was prepared to rear a strong, self-possessed woman. In my feminist readings, I ran across a piece on women in heterosexual relationships that likened being married to a man to sleeping with the enemy. How the hell was I supposed to parent the enemy?
The first week of parenthood featured little sleep, lots of poop and a humiliating tendency for my body to do really revolting things completely out of my control. I remember one day, though, sitting on my back porch. The Little Enemy was asleep, finally. I had a lovely rose garden, but I wasn’t admiring it. I was completely absorbed in an epic wallow of self-pity. I had a boy. Boy, boy, boy. No little soul sister, I had a miniature man.
I started to cry. I stared out at my rose garden and wept. I got maudlin. I wept for the sassy girl I wouldn’t have and the beautiful woman I wouldn’t know. I wept because my child would never wear my wedding dress. And then I thought of Dennis Rodman and I laughed out loud. At that time, Mr. Rodman was wildly infamous for his outrageous behavior, which included going clubbing in a wedding dress. Immediately after lamenting that my child wouldn’t wear my gown, I pictured the beastly ugly Rodman in his and thought, “God, I hope not!”
I’ve said that nothing made me more of a feminist than raising a son. When I do, more than a few women look at me like I’ve either lost my mind or made a very unfunny joke. But it’s no joke. If our society beats down girls, it beats down boys just as cruelly. The problem is that while we’re eager to help girls with their self-esteem, their body image, their academic standings and their professional opportunities, most people don’t even want to recognize that boys are bound and gagged by our society, too. After all, helping boys would be the societal equivalent of aiding and abetting enemy combatants.
At this point, you may be wondering what the heck I’m talking about. Boys don’t need help; boys aren’t discriminated against. Boys never had to fight to get into anything. From Little League to Harvard to the White House, boys—especially white ones—have been living the high life.
I am not delusional, though. From the time my son was born, he was treated differently than a daughter would have been. Even in infancy, we expect boys to be tough. Baby boys are picked up less frequently than baby girls. Just because of a roll of the biological dice, one child is cuddled when she cries and the other is left to seek comfort in his little blue blankie. Being born male even reduces your chances of being adopted. Globally, more girls are adopted than boys, not because more girls are available but because people feel safer adopting a girl. In fact, you can probably cut your wait time to adopt merely by stating a preference for a boy.
School is supposed to be where the rubber begins to hit the road in discrimination against girls. But, seen through the eyes of boys and their mothers, school is set up for the male to fail. Standing in lines, communicating verbally, sitting still, pleasing the teacher are all behaviors that, for whatever reason, girls seem to master more quickly and easily than boys. Let’s not get sidetracked discussing why girls are able to do it. Let’s think about what it means to boys that their genetically codified behavior is more likely to get them a pass to the principal than a gentle reminder or exasperated sigh.
I don’t have enough space left to discuss how my son’s middle school career might have differed if he were a girl. I have a hard time imagining he would have been called lazy and unmotivated if he were a girl failing in the gifted program, though. One day he forgot to bring pencil and paper to the library. His teacher gave him a detention for defiance. If his name were Emily, I wonder if she’d just roll her eyes and hand her some paper.
As my son gets older, I’m less and less concerned about how his school treats him and more concerned with how his society treats him. Recently, a friend posted a screed on her Facebook wall. The gist of the post is this: if the parents of boys raised sons who kept their hands to themselves unless invited, then the parents of girls wouldn’t have to worry how their daughters are dressed.
At the same time, I’m dealing with my son’s sexual maturity. Overwhelmingly, his society paints him as barely able to contain his desires. If he has unprotected sex with a girl and she gets pregnant, it will be his fault. Don’t think so? When was the last time you heard someone refer to the boy involved in a teen pregnancy as “a nice young man”? Nope. He’ll be “that jackass who got Susie pregnant.”
The idea that boys have to be controlled for the world to be safe is insulting at best and hypocritical at worst. At the same time we are telling little boys to keep their hands to themselves, we think it’s cute when little girls chase them to steal a kiss. The boys don’t think it’s cute. The boys think it’s harassment and they get mad when we don’t stop the girls.
We ridicule boys who dance, want to be nurses and love to play with dolls. If you think we don’t, then you haven’t raised a boy. When a girl wants to box, play hockey or quarterback a football team, we say “Why not?” We may even get angry if she’s not allowed to. Imagine the reaction to a boy who wants to dance Giselle. Not really seeing the outrage, are you?
Let’s call a truce. Let’s teach boys and girls to keep their hands to themselves. Let’s admit that girls want to have sex as much as boys do. Let’s teach all of our children that they can be whatever they want to be . . .and mean it.
When I lived in Oak Park, my next-door neighbor was an Armenian woman, about my age, who grew up in the Soviet Union. While she had an M. D. and a Ph.D., was working on curing breast cancer and could speak at least three languages, there was one she desperately wanted to learn. She felt her lack hindered her ability to truly interact with her colleagues.
My friend wanted to learn the language of American vulgarity. I don’t discriminate in verbal acquisition, so my vocabulary includes an extensive collection of American swear words. And I know how to use them.
So on our nightly walks, I would instruct her in how to swear in American English. We spent at least two sessions discussing the various terms for copulation. I ranked them in increasing order of severity from “fooling around” up to the “F” word. She was astounded at how versatile that word could be, but couldn’t really master its use. Still she was eager to try her newly acquired skills. At a meeting of her research team, presented with a problem that confounded her, she said, “What fuck is this?!”
With the “F” word behind us, she turned her interest to vulgar synonyms for “penis.” Again, she was amazed at the variety of monikers Americans have devised for the male appendage. I don’t think she believed me when I mentioned that many men actually have a pet name for their penis, “just like women have a term for their breasts.” The look on her face told me that Soviet women probably don’t have terms of endearment for their “girls.”
I was reminded of my friend while taking care of my dad recently. Cancer treatment doesn’t just make you tired. It doesn’t just make you nauseous. In my dad’s case, there is a lot of sleeplessness. He also has a feeding tube installed in his small intestine. All night, the adult version of formula is pumped into his body. So, along with the sleeplessness, he has toileting issues.
It was in the course of dealing with one of these issues that I came face-to-face, as it were, with my dad’s . . .um . . .Johnson. I knew what came next. I dreaded what came next. Out of respect for my dad’s ability to retain his dignity in a terrible situation, I got over myself and did what needed to be done.
Dad and I both survived the incident and others as well, but it struck me that we had crossed a significant invisible barrier. In a moment, it became appropriate to do something that had been completely inappropriate a heartbeat prior.
When we were kids, my dad would dress in his swim trunks and get in the shower with my sister and me. With the water beating down on us, he would rock back and forth making storm noises. Now, I’m grabbing a handful of cleansing wipes and helping dad do what he can’t do for himself.
Ironically, it’s now ok for me to see dad’s unit, but no longer appropriate for me to see my son’s. When my son was an infant, I didn’t just see the teeny, weenie peenie, but was its primary care giver. The doctor assured me that post-circumcision care was simple. She lied. I think she did it on purpose. Prior to amending my son’s constitution, she told me “circumcision is completely unnecessary. We used to think the procedure didn’t hurt them, but now we believe that isn’t true.” She then gave me the pursed-lip “I dare you to be a bad mother” look. I gave her the “it’s none of your damn business” look and said, “My husband is Jewish.”
My intimate relationship with my son’s winky continued. He refused to use the toilet any way but the way his father did: standing up. This meant that the only time he did not pee in a diaper was at Brookfield Zoo, where there is a pint-sized urinal in the women’s restroom. At nearly four years old, he finally stood tall enough to (sort of) hit the mark in the potty. He still is only sort of making the mark, but I think he does it so he doesn’t have to share a bathroom with his sister.
The day it became inappropriate for me to see my son’s penis is burned into my mind. I was bringing laundry to his room, just as I had done for years. I seldom knocked. On the day that shall live in infamy, I opened the door and found my son exercising his right to the pursuit of happiness. We looked at each other in horror. I said, “AHHHHHH!!!!” He said, “AHHHHHHHHH!!!! I slammed the door. Now, I knock and he locks.
I don’t think I’ll ever completely recover from seeing my baby boy behaving in a very un-babyish manner. That kind of thing has a way of searing the corneas. But, I’m behaving like an adult when it comes to caring for dad. He needs it and I’m glad to do it.