Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Google Map Perspective

Once again, Hollywood and I are hanging out in LA. For the last four years, occasionally and sometimes routinely, we've taken the long drive south through the desert in pursuit of his acting career. Sometimes, like this weekend, it's acting classes. Other times it's auditions and callbacks.

It used to be that we came out fairly regularly, several times a week even, but for various reasons we've pulled back from it all and haven't made the trip in a while. Hence, this weekend is really one of analysis: Is this really something Hollywood wants to do? Is it worth the effort? Is he willing to put in the time? Does he even enjoy acting, anymore? Or has he outgrown it all?

His agent in Vegas warned me, a year or two ago, that teenage boys tend to drop out of the business. Peer pressures and stigmas and the daunting task of fitting in, etc. When she said this, I found myself both hopeful and sad. Hopeful because the child acting business is really taxing on a parent--in a way that soccer and ballet never have been for me--and even more so when you live four hours outside of LA. And sad because I'd hate for peer pressure to rob him of his dream when middle-school bullying has already stolen whole chunks of him. (Although, I'm thrilled to say, he's grabbed a lot of it back. And he's ever stronger for it all!)

Anyway, so here we are. Again. In LA.

The class he's taking is right smack in Hollywood, on Hollywood Boulevard, but since we booked late our hotel is in Sherman Oaks, which I want to say is north of Hollywood, but I'm not entirely sure, and that is just the point of this post:

We've been driving to and fro along the I15, for years, our destinations varying all over greater LA, from Hollywood to Van Nuys to Santa Monica and more. For pleasure, we've also visited Manhattan Beach and Malibu, and, of course, Disney Land. And always, always we've had a navigator in the car to get us where we were going. So, never once, have I had to look at a map of the city that wasn't a Google map--a small square of perspective no more informative than the minute-by-minute instructions of the navigator telling me to turn, turn, turn, until finally, "Destination on the right."

This morning, having plugged in McDonald's (Hollywood had a hankering for hotcakes) I found myself recognizing my surroundings.

"Hey," I said to Hollywood. "We know this area. That's the spot we ate at that time."

"Oh, ya," he said.

But, until then, we really had no idea where we were. LA isn't a place we've lived. We don't know it the way the locals do. Not well enough to take short cuts or avoid traffic. We are at the mercy of that automated voice of instruction and the small map on the dash-screen.


And it occurred to me as I dropped Hollywood off, this morning, two years of middle school later; and at least a foot taller than the last time I dropped him off to that class; peach fuzz on his upper lip; gangly arms; the caution in his eyes where once, only love and trust; the protective curve of his shoulders; but wisdom, too, and a well-earned strength..., and, well, it occurred to me that we live our lives in squares as small as those damn Google maps.


Eager to get where we need to go in our busy, busy lives, we take the first road, and the next road, but eventually and most certainly we hit upon a road jammed up by traffic, or stress, or economic worries; we're jammed up because our kids are being bullied at school, or because they aren't making great grades; we're jammed up with insecurities and false ambitions; we're jammed up for a million reasons. And we can't see where to go, because in the moment of it all, our perspectives our as limited as those God-damn Google maps.

Anyway, my point being that it's not a bad idea to sit back and take the time to look over the whole map, once in a while.


...you know, to help you to see where it is you're going.

...and to appreciate where you've been.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Mommy's Favorite

"Who's my favorite?" they all ask. They all want to know. They've always wanted to know.

I suppose the question started forming in their little minds sometime in preschool when these sort of questions started being put to them: What's your favorite color? What's your favorite food? Favorite number? Favorite friend? Until, eventually, each one of them came home to ask, "Mommy, who's your favorite?"

I handled it the way my own mother did: "You're my favorite girl," I said to Sunshine. "And you're my favorite boy," I told Hollywood.

And this worked for a time.

Then The Storm came along to make me revise my answer. I took another cue from my mother's book: "Sunshine's my favorite big girl. Hollywood's my favorite boy. And The Storm is my favorite little girl," I said.

And this, too, satisfied them for a time. Enough so that whenever one asked, another would answer for me: "Sunshine's her favorite big girl, Hollywood's her favorite boy, and The Storm is her favorite little girl."


I imagine it's a question that all mothers encounter at least as many times as they have children. It waits, posed to be posed, right there in the wings of a mother's life. It never goes away. And just like the children who ask it, the question grows more complicated. So that now that they are eleven and fifteen and seventeen years old, my loyalty-inspired strategy has grown weak, flawed and it's failing miserably.

"No, really," Sunshine said, a few months back, "You can tell me. I won't mind. Who's your favorite?"

She's sure that it's not her. She believes it's Hollywood, because he's the one I've worried for most in the past few years. And she's sure that Balthazar favors The Storm. "They have the soccer thing," she says.

Plus, for as long as she can remember, she's been on her own, like on family bike rides when Hollywood rode tandem with me and Balthazar pulled the toddler-trailer with The Storm buckled inside, while our big girl managed her own two-wheeler. I can't recall many other examples, but Sunshine could list off an earful if you asked her. She started to, one time, a couple of years back, when the question arose again.

As for Hollywood, he too feels left out, particularly when Balthazar travels for work and he's the only boy in a house full of girls. He doesn't ask about favorites anymore. He's a teenage boy, he doesn't ask about much, anymore. But, like his older sister, I'm pretty sure he doesn't believe he's made anyone's final cut.

The Storm still asks, though, and she does so with all the fresh enthusiasm of her age. Her eyes still grow bright, optimistic, while she waits for my answer. Her brow lifts. Maybe this time she'll tell me I'm her favorite, she's thinking. Hoping.

"You're my favorite little girl," I say, again.

"But...," she throws me a curve, "I'm not a little girl anymore. You've said it yourself."

"You're growing up fast, that's true. But you'll always be my little girl." Then I wrap my arms around her and squeeze, poor compensation for failing her, for my unwillingness to choose her above the others.

"But...," she says, again.

"There are no buts about it. I love you all. Equally," I say, a bit defensively.

But..., she's thinking (I'm sure of it, I can see it in her eyes,) but your favorite color is yellow; your favorite flower is the daisy; your favorite food is spaghetti; and your favorite man is Daddy. So, surely, you must have a favorite child.

How could she know? How could anyone who isn't a mother know how much I love each and every one of them? How could she know that I would die a thousand brutal deaths for each and every one of them? A thousand brutal deaths times three.

And how could they know that loving differently isn't necessarily loving more. Or less. Just differently.

Because I do love them differently. And the differences in the way I love them are as obvious and as subtle as the differences in each of them: Sunshine's infectious smile; her clever, clever wit; the curve of her baby finger; the surprising firmness of the cartilage that intertwines her delicate ears, ears that I loved to touch while she slept as an infant, before those first curls arrived to drape them; and the way Hollywood's eyes hold histories and worlds, histories of worlds; the irony of his jawline, still delicate and smooth but holding the strength and promise of all the man that he is growing into; the pitch of his sudden laugh; the softness of his heart; and the way The Storm wraps herself around you to hug with her whole being; and the way she loves with her whole heart, like her siblings, but differently, with more abandon, I think, I fear; the deep brown tone of her summer skin pulling taut across her slender back and shoulders; the deep dip of the cleft above her lip, below her nose, that's deeper still when she's just woken and her face is as cottony-full as her voice .

Yes, I love each of them differently. And differently everyday, still. They are complicated. I am complicated. It's complicated.

But The Storm's inability to comprehend this isn't really the issue. The real issue is that I'm failing her. Me. Her mother. That in trying to be fair to all my children, her included, I'm breaking her heart.

The issue is that hope, unfulfilled, eventually dies.

The issue is that those beautiful brown brows may not lift in optimism the next time she asks.

The issue is that Hollywood no longer asks at all; that, having endured enough heartbreak outside the home, he knows better than to come looking for it inside, from his mother.

The issue is Sunshine's recent approach to the question. Her bravery: "You can tell me." And the desperation beneath it. Please, tell me. Please, tell me it's me.

The issue is that my unbending loyalty to all of them is failing all of them, individually.

The real issue is that each and every one of them wants desperately to hear that they are special, the most special. They want me to love them the most. And, of course, I do! Love them the most. Each of them. The most.

So, why not say it? "I love you the most!"

Because it's absolutely true: "I love you the most! And I love you the most! And I love you the most!"

So, I'm revising my answer, again. Staunch loyalty isn't working. Loyalty that twists and reaches and bends over backwards; loyalty as flexible, all encompassing, strong and complicated as a mother's love, that's the loyalty needed to answer this most serious and delicate of questions.

"You, yes, you are Mommy's favorite!" I'm going to say, the very next time I'm asked. And the time after that, and the time after that, and the time after that.

Because they need to hear it.

And because it's so very, very true.



Thursday, April 24, 2014

Some Thoughts from Baby

A Post by Special Guest Blogger, The Storm



Today was Take Your Child To Work Day, so The Storm put in her share of writing. She also did some pitching and she even submitted her short story (which was pretty good!) to a handful of publications. Fingers crossed! Her final assignment of the day was to write a nonfiction piece about being the youngest in our clan. Here it is: 

I am the youngest of three in my family. There are some really cool things about being the youngest but, then again, there are some not so cool things. Yes, I am the baby and everyone thinks that I get what I want. But you should meet my mother—she likes to get things her way, too. That’s the problem my mother is like me, so that is why we don’t get along so well. We kind a of argue a lot!
   
Some good things about being the youngest is that I am the baby, so I get to act like one. When my brother and I are fighting, I can just yell really loud at him and my mom will scream at him to get his butt downstairs. Also, because I am the youngest I have an older sister and an older brother, so I know thing I should not know (because of the shows they watch, which I watch with them.) It isn’t just them: my mom says bad words sometimes. (She is getting better, though.) Ya, so being the youngest is fantastic!



Some BAD things about being the youngest is that my opinion doesn’t really matter. Also when I want to record MY TV shows, everybody else’s shows come before mine. Being the youngest, I can’t go to the R-rated movies with the rest of my family. Also, I feel left out sometime because the older kids do things I can’t do because I am to young. So, ya, being the youngest sucks!



These are some pro and cons about being the youngest in my family.

A note on Mom's bad language habits: What can I say? I love words! All of them!   

As for whose opinions matter:

The Storm wanted not one, not two, but three birthday parties this year. She got'em.



The Storm wanted to go to Disneyland over spring break.



And the beach.


And the zoo.

And she wanted to rent a funky bike.


And she wanted to rent a kayak, and have pizza for lunch, and visit the chocolate shop, and sit in the backseat, and watch Batman instead of "Anything else, please, anything else," and she wanted to ride Splash mountain three times, even though the sun had gone down and it was really cold --so we did all of this. And she didn't want to walk, ever, so we didn't. 

But, if you ask her about the week, she'll tell you that she wanted to go surfing and we didn't. So, her opinions don't really matter. Sigh. I'll say this for her: She knows what she wants, and she wants it all!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Girl / Woman


When she was little, the rules were pretty obvious, the boundary lines clear: You can ride your bike on the sidewalk only; hold my hand to cross the road; always swim with buddy. These things, and a thousand others, I told her to keep her safe.

As Sunshine became older, she insisted I loosen the grip at her wrist.

"Trust me," she said, and I did and she grew to be this smart, strong, confident, beautiful and kind sixteen-year-old (almost seventeen-year-old!) girl/woman. (That little diagonal line separating those two words holds a world.)

I trust her. And she talks to me. And she has convinced me that the teenager stereotype, full of angst and rebellion, is a myth brought upon by a lack of understanding, communication, tolerance and patience.

And she is good, and she values the trust between us as much as I do, and here is where it gets complicated:

Last night, after a lengthy explanation about the proficiency testing going on at school, from which she is exempt, and assurances that most of her teachers will be moderating said testing, leaving her with substitutes and hours upon hours of classroom videos, make-work and general do-nothingness, she asked if she could skip school to have fun with her friends.

"I can't give you permission to skip school," I said, even as I recalled some of my favorite high school memories:

We called them day parties, these shining occasions when twenty or thirty of us would spontaneously skip off to his house, her house, the beach, a dirt road and just have the most spectacular fun in these few stolen hours. In fact, whenever I meet up with old friends, even thirty years later, these day parties take center stage under the yellow lights of our reminiscing.

So, "I can't give you permission to skip school," I said, again, "but, I won't punish you, either."

"And if you get caught, it's on you. I won't have your back."

But, this morning, as she slung her school bag over her shoulder, on her way out the door, it suddenly occurred to me that I didn't know exactly where she was going, and I'd created a situation whereby she couldn't tell me.

"I obviously don't want to know where you are going," I said, all sternness. "But, I absolutely want to know where you are going." A panic bubbled up inside me.

She laughed at me, at my ridiculous logic which grew, of course, from my desire to keep her by the hand, keep a firm grip, keep her little and home with me.

"I'll make good choices," she said, "and I'll let you know if I go anywhere different from the usual spots."

"Or if you do anything unusual."

"Okay."

"Unusual for you, not me."

"Okay, Mom."

"And be home at the usual time."

"Right."

"And make good choices."

"We're getting repetitive."

"Just go," I said.

I cried a little when she left.


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Life is Hard

"It shouldn't be this hard," I said to my friend.

Balthazar and I had hit our roughest patch on life's road. We were, more or less, living apart, he in Vegas, and I with the kids, in Iowa--since Vegas had a job for him and we couldn't sell our house in the Midwest.

This lasted for two years. Funds, too, were tight and, playing the role of a single mom, I could barely find the time I needed to write my thesis. I'd committed to a very expensive, low-residency program, less than a month prior to Balthazar's job troubles. Oh, and our house was for sale throughout the ordeal, so I was frantic to keep it clean, lest we lose the one buyer we were desperate to find to make everything right, again. 

I was stressed out. Balthazar was stressed out. And the kids suffered, too, for our stress--which made us stress all the more.

"Why not?" my friend asked of my complaint about life.

"Because. Because. It just shouldn't."

"Why not?" she repeated.

"Because life is supposed to be fun. It's meant to be enjoyed." 

At least, that was what I had always believed and because, for me, life had, for the most part, been roses and lemonade. Even when things were difficult, which of course they sometimes were, there was wine to swirl in our glasses, once we'd clinked them together--"Here's to better days." Love to be made at night. Morning doves cooing outside our window, come sun up.

"But it's also hard," said my friend, candidly. 

I stopped being her friend that day. It was an act of defiance.

~
     
But life stayed hard for us, anyway, despite my protests. Really, really hard. 

At first it was little things: A freaky flood in our basement in Iowa to scare off our first real prospect; a scorpion infestation in the new house in Vegas. One thing after another to keep our foreheads perpetually wrinkled: the constant vomiting of the dog who was allergic to the Vegas heat; a car accident; another car accident; an infestation of  lice that lasted forever; bad teachers; bullies at school; and always there were the bills we were expecting; plus the ones we weren't. 

And these were in the years when things were supposed to be getting better: Balthazar and I were working desperately to put things back in order. I'd graduated from school, we'd sold the house, found another in Vegas and we'd begun the long slow climb out of the debt that the previous years had set us in. 

"We have a roof over our head, food on the table. We have our health and we have each other." I encouraged Balthazar. 

But the roof wasn't ours, really; it was rented. And the food was bland, or takeout, because, I really didn't feel like cooking much, anymore. This led to wider waistbands, less energy, less will. It led to less each other. Less of ourselves. More stress. 

But, we are fighters, Balthazar and I, so we got up each day and did what needed to be done, tackled whatever new challenge showed up at our door. Then, at the end of the day, we squeezed the kids, as if to soak in some of their youth and optimism, to replenish ours--which was vastly diminishing. 

We hugged each other, in consolation. 

"It has to get better," we both said. Over. And over. And over again.

Then, "Are you fucking kidding me?" when the next blow would arrive. 

"Are you fucking kidding me?" I railed at our rented ceiling.  

And the blows were knock-you-on-your-ass mighty. Sometimes because we'd had yet to get up from the last. And sometimes because they came from left field. And sometimes because they just were.

"We still have our health," I said to Balthazar. "The kids are healthy. We're healthy. We're gold," I said, "As long as we have our health, we're gold."

It was, in all honesty, the one thing, I was desperately afraid to lose. I could battle the rest of it, as long as we stayed healthy, I thought.
~

"I'm sending you to a specialist," said my doctor, on a routine checkup. "It's your thyroid."

I didn't go. "Life is not supposed to be this hard!" 

~

Then, just over five years into our rough patch, five years living in a perpetual state of stress, a flu sent me to bed. For a full week. A week I couldn't afford. I missed four deadlines. My anxiety levels skyrocketed.

And then I gave in. I laid my head on the pillow and I slept. For days. 

When I finally awoke, recovered from the virus, a numbness took over my lips and face, my hands. And then my brain. I couldn't follow a simple movie plot. I certainly couldn't write. My hip joints ached. 

"Are you fucking kidding me?" I said, that first morning when it hurt to walk.

I suspected multiple sclerosis. My new doctor (naturally, I'd ditched the other) suspected multiple sclerosis, too. She scheduled tests. 

"Are you fucking kidding me?" Balthazar didn't say it. Instead, he poured over the bills.   

~

"Seriously?" I said, when the receptionist asked for an exorbitant co-pay upfront. 

"Forget it," I said. "I'm not sick. I'm only stressed out." 

I went home.
~

"I'm sorry," I said when Balthazar began complaining about bills, that week. "I'm sorry that you're stressed out. But I can't worry with you. If you have to worry, you'll have to worry alone. I won't worry anymore, not about money nor whatever shit should arrive on our doorstep tomorrow. I can't live like this. We can't live like this. It will kill us."

"I love you though," I said. "And I'd love to just go for a walk and hold your hand."

~

The blows still come, but less frequently, it seems. And, somehow, they land with less force. Even the big ones:

"Epilepsy," said the neurologist of Sunshine's episodes.

To her, he said, "Everyone has something."

"That's true," I said. "Think of Hollywood's allergies."  They arrived like a sucker punch, during our second spring in Vegas and have been hassling him ever since. 

"Chronic sinusitis," said his specialist, last month.

Balthazar's high blood pressure is genetic; he's careful about what he eats.

~

I'm careful about what I eat now, too. I'm cooking with enthusiasm, again. We exercise regularly.

We smile and laugh, a lot, as often as we can, really.

And these joyous occasions chip away at the pall that has hung over us for so long.

To make me smile all day long. And I value our good days more than ever. 

I'm smiling now, as I write this post.

And my symptoms have all but disappeared. And we bought our own house, and there are no scorpions, and the dog stopped vomiting....

Life is hard. A lot of the time. And it's bound to get harder still, but when it's not, Oh!

When it's not, it's pretty damned great!
~

I think I'll call my old friend. I owe her an apology. A drink. We'll swirl our wine in our cups, once we've clinked them together.       

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Crazy Mom


I spent most of the Labor Day weekend on the sidelines with the rest of the parents of The Storm's soccer team, while the girls competed in tournament. They're a good bunch of people and I was just reflecting on them, when an alarming thought occurred to me.

You know how there's always one crazy mom in every group? The one who is totally over the top? She either rides her kids too hard or talks them up too much. Or else she completely coddles them. She might have them set on twelve foot pedestals. Whatever it is, she's usually pretty easily identifiable because she goes on and on, completely oblivious to the fact that her behavior pretty much horrifies everyone else.

Anyway, it just occurred to me that we don't have one of these in our group. Which means....

Gulp.

Oh my God..., I must be her! 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Fighting Words



Yesterday found us at Target buying Hollywood some new school supplies. Weeks ago we purchased the girls' things but, just recently, Hollywood has also decided to return to public school.

He left middle school, last January, when the bullying became unbearable, and he's spent the last eight months doing an online homeschool curriculum that was terrific, in that it taught him academic independence:

While I was always around to help him, often I would need to research subjects for myself, before I was any good to him. Hollywood soon figured out that by removing the middleman, me, he could get his work done twice as quickly. He began looking things up on his own, rarely turning to me at all, in the last few months. He learned to teach himself and think for himself--a fabulous thing to be sure.

But, he's been lonely. A 14-year-old boy needs other 14-year-old kids around, friends who speak his adolescent language and like the things he likes, video games, Nerf guns, cannonballs. So, he's returning to the public school system, again--having grown older, stronger and wiser to the ways of the world and the treacherous terrain of middle school.

"Keep your head down this time," I've warned him several times. "Try to fit in," I've said, in spite of myself. In spite of him, too.

Two binders, two packs of college-ruled paper, 24 pencils, a protractor, a science calculator and three other large bags of Crayola and Mead supplies later, we met up with Balthazar and the girls for dinner and a late movie, grabbing as much last minute summer fun as we could before school starts up again.

We saw The Butler, a movie that caused some mid-film seat shuffling, in order that Balthazar and I might field the questions that continually arose. It was early in the movie that The Storm leaned over with her first.

"What does that mean?" she asked, referring to the N- word.

"You've never heard it before because it's a very bad word," I said back, before I explained to her, as best I could in brief and whispered theatre tones, the word in its historical context. 

Then, settling back into my seat and reaching for another handful of popcorn, it occurred to me that I certainly had heard the N- word, and quite regularly even, by the time I was ten, and what a great thing it was that she hadn't yet, and what that said about society's progress. It was a line of thinking that the movie, opening up in a cotton field and concluding with the election of President Obama, went on to confirm.

The best thing about art, the thing that makes me so passionate about literature, beyond the prose--I'm crazy for good prose!--is not the story so much as the conversation that the story inspires, the bigger thinking that culminates.

"You know," said Hollywood, on the way home. "I was just thinking about the word gay."

"Ya? " I said. It was just us in the car. The girls were riding with their dad.

"Well, kids should find another word to use as an insult. It's not right," he said. "Like, when they called me gay, even though I'm not, I was offended by it."

"Hmm," I said.

"It's because of the way they said it. They said it in a mean way. But I don't think there's anything wrong with being gay." He paused. "Still, I was offended. I don't think kids should use that word that way. Like when something is uncool, they call it gay. Like being gay is bad thing." Another pause. "I think a person's sexual preference should be up to them and nobody else should care."

"I agree."

Then he said, "I think maybe I should try to change the way kids use that word." And my alarm bells started clanging. 

Part of Hollywood's problem, in middle school, was his intolerance for bullying. He couldn't let it happen to anyone, without speaking up. I remember teaching him, years ago, that this was the right thing to do. Now, I realize, I set him up: In defending the bullied, he became the target.

"I think maybe I should say something when kids use that word, that way," he said, while I scrambled for the right response.

"Maybe," I finally said. "But remember, middle school is a rough place. Remember you were gonna keep your head down?"

I want him to do what's right. I want him to be true to his strong, always dead-on accurate, moral compass. But, more than this, I want him safe. I want him happy. I want him to fit in.

Because it's so much easier.

But..., this isn't my decision to make.

"You know how, in the movie, and in history, the people who stood up for what was right were persecuted? How they were beaten and jailed and even killed? How hard it was for them?" I said.

"Ya?"

"Well, you just have to know if you're gonna stand up for something, if you're gonna fight for something, well, you're gonna be in a fight. You've got to be ready for that. You've got to consider whether you want to take that on. And if now's the time," I said--because although he's bigger and stronger and wiser than he was eight months ago, and his confidence and self-esteem have been replenished, it was only eight months ago.

I didn't add, "For God's sake, please, keep your head down, my sweet baby boy."

Although, I desperately wanted to.

"I guess I need to think about it a little. Maybe there's something else I can do to make people stop using that word that way," he said.

"And remember, change doesn't happen over night."

"Right."

We were quiet, in our own thoughts, for the remainder of the ride. He, thinking seriously about how to best make the world change for the better. Me, wrestling with my own moral compass; with my desire to tame the good in him, to make him better fit in a not-so-good world.

~

When we were at home, later, while he played on the floor with our miniature schnauzer, he asked me another question. Although, I now suspect, he already knew the answer.

"Mom, what's a mutt, exactly?"

"It's a dog that isn't a purebred. It's a mix of different breeds."

"You called Shadow a mutt, once, when you were mad at her."

...Point taken, my wise young man. Point taken.