All posts by nyctomad

Skip it

When I was seven months pregnant with L (who was not L, then, just a nameless, genderless source of excitement, anxiety, heartburn, and nausea), my mother called me one day, wanting to know if my copy of The New Yorker had arrived yet. It had, I told her, but I hadn’t had a chance to look through it (busy as I was drinking milk to cool the heartburn—why didn’t the otherwise thorough midwife tell me about ranitidine?—and eating only other foods that were white). Why did she ask?

“There’s a piece in there that I think you should skip.”

“What? Why?” I asked, as I went to the table where we kept the mail so that I could find this week’s New Yorker, figure out which piece she meant, and begin most emphatically NOT to skip it. I’m difficult like that. Everyone likes to torture themselves with painful thoughts now and then, right? What? Oh. Maybe not everyone. Well. Moving right along.

“Sweetie, I really think you should skip it, “ said my mother, who knows me alarmingly well. “It’s about a late-term miscarriage.”

I had the magazine in hand by now—it had a picture of a house on the cover. (Was it the White House? With maybe a dog in front? Bo?) I put it back down on the table. I may dabble in emotional masochism, but this seemed like the kind of subject matter that would drive me to camp out in the hallway of the Newport Hospital labor and delivery unit, demanding 24/7 fetal monitoring for the rest of my pregnancy. Also, as insistent as I am at picking at mental scabs, I also adore when someone kisses my boo-boo and applies a bandage. If my mom wanted to protect me, I would let her. I needed to skip that article. I needed to skip it so badly, and could trust myself to resist the impulse to read it so little, that after I got off the phone, I found the page number in the table of contents, and, squinting so I couldn’t make out the lede and be drawn in, ripped the whole thing out, tore it into shreds, and tossed it into the trash. Though I wondered (oh, boy, how I wondered), what I didn’t know didn’t hurt me. After what felt like another seven months but yes, I know, was actually closer to two, L was born. Six pounds and thirteen ounces of dark-eyed life-changing intensity.

W tried to protect me last week. Again, the threat to my well-being lay in the hard copy of a weekly publication. I came home from work with a copy of the Isthmus, and spotted the copy he’d brought home, sitting on the kitchen table.

“Hey, you got an Isthmus? Ha, I got an Isthmus,” I said, for maybe the thirty-second time this year. (You’d think I’d learn that he always gets an Isthmus, except when I don’t, which is when he doesn’t either, and now I find myself in a bit of a muddle.)

He asked if I’d read it yet, which isn’t an uncommon question. The Isthmus is a local newspaper with a tendency to run stories about local law enforcement that are unapologetically critical and lack certain elements of, oh, let’s say thorough and unbiased reporting. W frequently has some very angry, very articulate, and very blue (yup—went there) commentary on what he reads therein.

“Nope, not yet,” I said. “What’d they say this time?”

“There’s some stuff you might not like in there.”

“That I might not like? Seriously? What?”

“Some stuff in the middle, by the events section. You might just want to skip it.”

“What is in the Isthmus that I might want to skip? You’re killing me. Tell me. Wait, do I want to know? Maybe I don’t. I do. Tell me.”

He did. I’m glad he did. I’m a (non-pregnant!) adult, and the content of part of the events section, in the middle of last week’s Isthmus, was indeed something I did not like, something that made me feel sad and a little jealous and generally kind of mildly bleh, but it didn’t break me. It was good to be warned by W—rather than stumbling on the photo and blurb in the Isthmus on my own—that someone who used to be a very close friend of mine but a few years ago broke off contact (for reasons not shared with me) would be in town for an arts event. It was good to have a heads-up from my husband that this person, whose success in a world I was once part of, but have (not entirely of my own volition) moved away from, would be in my city, in part because of that success. It was good to have him offer to keep me ignorant, then to blunt the surprise, and then indulge me with a bit of conversation about this person that was not at all appropriate for the day before the day before the Day of Atonement. I am still turning this information and the past it brings up around and around in my head, and taking some enjoyment out of feeling wronged and sad, but I’m also turning around and around the knowledge that someone is looking out for me, coddling me. I love to be coddled.

Eight years after my second (and most likely—though I wish it were not so—final, but this is a topic far too fraught to bring up in a closing paragraph in such a syntactically reprehensible manner, shame on me) pregnancy ended successfully, I decided I could handle the New Yorker article. I was wrong about the dog in front of the White House—wrong administration. Actually, I was wrong about the White House, too, and even about there being a house on the cover at all. But my mother was right about the article. It would have hit close to home, and it was wrenching. It’s beyond me how anyone could survive that. I know reading it back then would have wrecked me. I’m not melodramatic or hypochondriac enough to suggest that reading an article about someone else’s pain would have done me or L actual harm, but I would have been terrified and miserable. I’m glad my mother spared me from being terrified and miserable. I’m so grateful to her for knowing that what I didn’t read wouldn’t hurt me, just as I’m grateful to W for knowing that even if it does, I’ll pull through. I’ll be whiny and self-pitying, but I’ll pull through.

Fine

I’m a big baby and require near-constant validation, so when I tripped while running and got a scrape that bled and oozed and refused to scab and then when it finally did scab, itched like hell, I made sure my family knew I was suffering. I complained constantly about a wound that a kindergartner would have moved on from after ten minutes until one day, after a particularly loud groan caused by sitting down on the couch (the bending! The agony!), L sat down next to me, and said, in her grave voice, “Mommy, I get really worried about your injuries.” Yeah, I know. Way to go, whiny-whinerson.

The fun thing about reassuring her was that I did it by bragging. “I’m fine,” I told her. “I’m just a complainer. I’m totally healthy. In fact, I’m so healthy that I run at least 5 miles a day! [Ed. note: I averaged it out, okay?] That’s how I got this silly scrape—from running! I do all that running to keep me healthy, and I get healthier because of the running. I’m fine.”

She smiled and moved on (and I stopped bitching around her—as long as we’re on the topic, though, it’s still really itchy, a little oozy, and sore. But no red streaks or heat, so I think gangrene is off the table). This happens pretty frequently—she tells me about something that’s worrying her, and I talk her down. It’s what you do when your kid has anxiety disorder. You get pretty good at it.

But here’s the thing: It’s basically a lie. The confidence? The upbeat, calm tone that suggests that I’ve got things covered, and is meant to impress upon her the extreme unlikelihood of bad things happening? It’s a put-on. An act. I don’t believe it myself.

This is what I mean: I’m traveling in a few weeks for work, and despite the fact that she’s flown a lot and has never betrayed an ounce of trepidation before or during the process, L has told me several times that she’s really worried about my having to take a plane. So I go into assurance mode. I remind her of how many flights take off and land every single day without incident. “A plane just landed safely just now,” I say. “Another one did. Another one. And another one. Oh, another one.” I tell her about how my father used to fly between NY and DC several times a week, and it was no big deal. I tell her I will be fine.

The truth is that flying terrifies me, and that I hated when the Delta Shuttle was a regular part of my father’s commute. When I’m on a plane, all the other flights that have landed safely are irrelevant, and it is utterly likely to me that something terrible will happen. I’m just as worried as she is about my flying, and I am far from convinced that I will be fine, because statistics and past experience to the contrary, I believe that terrible things will happen.

That expectation of certain doom is my regular mindset, despite an existence that’s been blessedly free of tragedy and significant pain or sorrow. I am totally physically healthy, yeah—maybe. But lots of healthy people suddenly aren’t. Who knows what’s lurking, waiting? I love running, but as I do, there is a constant, niggling chatter in my head of the potential perils—the uneven sidewalks, the inattentive drivers, the rabid dogs, the falling tree limbs, the lightning strikes, the rapist in the bushes.

If I were to list here all of the things I worry about on a daily basis, and you gave up reading–understandably uninterested at best, irritated at me for being so very annoying at worst– after half a page, you’d still be leaving 98% of my catalog unread. And it grows longer every day. For me, worrying about all the hideous possibilities that are coming is an utterly logical default. It’s a perfectly reasonable life-view—rational, even. I both envy and am baffled by those who don’t share this mindset.

But I’m an adult, and I’ve learned, with help, how to deal with the worries. They’re not incapacitating. I recognize that seeing my world and my future as dark and scary is counterproductive to happiness, and so I do the work (with the help of SSRIs) to lie to myself that the bad things will not happen, and to compartmentalize and step away from the thoughts of doom.

Even though there’s an insistent voice that tells me that this run, this one, today, is the one during which I move from being the woman who crosses Midvale Boulevard safely every day to a small, sad piece in tomorrow’s paper, I run anyway. And on every run I focus more on my internal whining about how this hill is too damn daunting, and on how mind-blowing this episode of TAL is, than the threats that I do believe are there. And that’s a victory. The triumph of making it home safely, coupled with the endorphins? That’s good stuff.

I’ll get on my flight for my work trip. I will be anxious and tense and I will clutch the armrests and shut my eyes and pray and generally be the kind of person you really don’t want to be sitting next to, but I’ll do it. I’ll hope for a reprieve from disaster—the disaster that I’ve been spared thus far, but that I know is out there, and why not for me? I’ll hope for my great fortune to continue, and I’ll be overjoyed and grateful if it does. It’s that joy and gratitude for having dodged my fate that helps balance out the worry, and helps me function.

L’s getting to the age where the confident reassurances will become less effective. At some point, she’s going to start calling us on the lies we tell her to help her worries go away. I worry about that day (surprise!), and I wonder how we will help her through it. I hope that she doesn’t see as much menace in her future as I see in mine, but if she does, I’m going to do my best to teach her that when it comes to overcoming worries, the greatest happiness and comfort lies in being proven wrong, over and over and over again.

Only in My Dreams

A dear friend came back to town yesterday after almost a year away. She brought with her her warm, wise, wickedly funny self; her son, my daughter’s soul-mate (I don’t usually go in for the nonsense of describing children that way, and I haven’t booked the wedding hall—yet—but these two have a connection and ease with each other that couples celebrating their 60th anniversary would envy); and some of the pieces (her husband and daughter haven’t returned yet, damn it, and there are a few more deserter- um, I mean families on sabbatical yet to get back) that have been missing from our co-dependent group of friends. So basically, she brought normal.

Also, she brought Debbie Gibson.

You know, the Debbie Gibson who sings “Lost in Your Eyes.”

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The last time I listened to Lost in Your Eyes, it was 1989. I fancied myself an aficionado of all things Yaz, Squeeze, and Alphaville, but at home, (having not, as yet, discovered the wondrous 92.7 WDRE) when DG came on the radio, I listened un-ironically, completely enraptured. I was awkward, insecure, pimply (so very, very, pimply; thank you, Accutane) and moony. Having a boyfriend—oh, screw that—having a boy express interest in me, was what I wanted most in life. Debbie, this girl only five years my senior, was singing about my ideal: Complete and utter happiness. With a boy. Who liked me. (Nota bene that she does not use the word love as a verb in LIYE.) This was an ideal that seemed very far off, if not completely unlikely.

Back to 2014: When my prodigal friend, an unabashed fan of 80s music, and not one to let an opportunity pass her by, mentioned that the chanteuse DG would be performing in our city in a few days, I had LIYE blasting from the speakers (thank you, Spotify) within seconds.

And there I was, twenty-five years later, perched on the arm of an easy chair in which reposed my overtired husband. My husband! I have a husband! And he’s nice! And he’s adorable! And he’s totally into me! I’m not gloating. I’m reveling. Reveling for the benefit of my 13-year-old-self, who was suddenly present in the living room, too, aghast at her future self’s unbelievably great (and mostly pimple-free) good fortune.

The husband himself was extremely annoyed, I should point out. “Why are we listening to this crap?” he asked, before hauling himself out of the chair and turning the music off. He’s right. The lyrics are trite and pat and hackneyed. But those lyrics perfectly evoked a need, and as it turns out, that need has been met.

I knew the almost 40-year-old me would be happy when my friend came back.  Turns out the 13-year-old me is, too, because she pointed out that happiness was not only in my dreams.  (Sorry.  It had to be done.)

Losing to Win/Winning to Lose, Part 1

My FaceBook feed is full of maternal one-upmanship. Not in the sense of whose children are smarter, more beautiful, more athletic, more musical (though there’s a bunch of that, too, and it annoys me far less than it would if I weren’t lucky enough to have my own brilliant, gorgeous, strong, chirping little marvels). It’s the “No, I’m the worst mommy,” type of one-upmanship, the hall of shame featuring snacks of sugary cereals eaten off the floor, screen time as babysitter, exhortations to play in the shade because the fight to apply sunscreen is too demoralizing, and other capitulations to convenience, exhaustion, and juvenile will. So, one-downmanship, maybe?

I am one of the worst offenders. Like right now, if I were not writing this, I’d be posting on FB about how it’s certainly a terrible idea to let my kids get their first taste of the Goosebumps TV show immediately before bed. It’s alarming how quiet they’re being—all I can hear are the screams from the iPad. Crap. Oh, the carnage! The terrible choices I make! How can they be expected to reach adulthood with a parent like me?

Sometimes it’s a disingenuous sort of humble-bragging. Look, I’m so savvy that I recognize that this is a sloppy, shocking indulgence! I’m so self-aware! And obvs, this is completely anomalous, and in sharp contrast to my usual careful, conscientious parenting. I wouldn’t post this if I really thought I was the world’s worst mommy.

I think there’s something more than vanity there, though. Putting my sins and mistakes out there is cathartic. It helps me move on from them. Especially when I can strike a jokey pose—if I’m being (trying to be?) funny, the offense itself isn’t that bad. Also, though I vow I am not the friend who, in response to your tale of woe, will respond “That’s nothing, listen to what happened to me….” I am kind of competitive.

There’s also solace in joining and maintaining one’s membership in a community of like-flawed parents. I play fast and loose (and in excess) with my time on Facebook, yes, and I follow a bunch of blogs, but I tend not to have FB friends (or real-life ones) whose parenting styles are drastically different than mine, and I don’t have the patience for all that Pinterest-y folksy perfection some mommy-bloggers revel in. It’s validating to commiserate and relate to– as well as contribute my own– tales of self-conscious, possibly indirectly-self-serving (but certainly coming from a genuine place of regret and frustration) maternal self-flagellation.

To wit: my friend Rachel writes about a playground merry-go-round incident in which a (totally wrong and, let’s just come out and say it, evil) stranger scolded Rachel’s young child and Rachel, mortified and caught off guard, also scolded her child. As I was contending with the referred guilt feelings from her perfectly evoked, painful memory (because it’s all about suggestible me) I remembered my own playground merry-go-round incident.

Sorry, Rach. I might prevail in this round of The Worst-Mommy game: You were set up by an evil adversary, and I only had myself to blame.

Looking back, I can see the factors that informed my behavior that mid-summer day, as I spun the merry-go-round on which my nearly-three-year-old daughter sat. I’m not making excuses, but the following are two contextual elements that, in my defense, should be considered.

1) My newborn son. Granted, at that moment, he was safely ensconced in the arms of his grandmother, who sat on a bench nearby, but still. I was maybe six weeks postpartum, so even with my mom in town to help (bless you, mom, by the way), I was sleep-deprived, spent, and longing for a few seconds when no part of my body was in contact with anyone else’s body, or even with an object that was in contact with someone else’s body. A sensory-deprivation tank would have been perfection.

2) My nascent case of mastitis. I was a few hours from coming down with a fever that would result in my spending the next day in bed. (Okay, not so much in bed as in the easy-chair in the baby’s room, but same difference.) The slash-and-burn antibiotic I was then given to treat the mastitis would leave the door wide open for a case of C. difficile which, being extremely, yes, difficile, would have its way with my digestive system for the rest of the summer. (It doesn’t matter that I couldn’t have known that would happen. There is no way something that miserable in a person’s future doesn’t send reverberations into the past. Trust me.)

Most of the memory is fuzzy. I know I told her to hold on tight. I know I made sure she was sitting. But I don’t know why I was spinning the merry-go-round so. Very. Fast. Maybe she was asking me to push faster, and I was obliging. Or maybe that’s blaming the victim. Maybe I was trying to show off: Hey, this mother of two under three is strong! You think gestation is impressive? Giving birth? Waking 6 times a night to nurse an infant? Watch me rock this twirly metal death-trap with these slightly flabby guns! Maybe I was releasing some aggression on an inanimate object. Maybe I got caught up in the soothing rhythm of grab-heave-grab-heave-grab-heave. Maybe I wasn’t watching her closely enough, because the spinning made me dizzy.

I don’t know exactly why I was spinning the merry-go-round fast, but I know that I was. So fast that after what must have been a particularly powerful heave, my daughter lost her grip. And flew.

People talk about their lives flashing before their eyes in moments of impending doom, and I always thought it sounded so melodramatic and unlikely, but no. As horror slowed time and I watched my child soar in slow motion, HER life flashed before my eyes. Her future life, that is. I saw the blood and the carnage and the plastic surgery and the life-long disabilities that would endure from what couldn’t be repaired. I saw the pain and suffering. I saw the damage that I’d caused.

I saw all these things, and then I saw how blessedly, wonderfully wrong I was. She landed, and she howled and howled and howled, and I’ll be damned (I would have been, actually) if that child wasn’t fine. Angry and scared as hell, but unscathed. And as if I wasn’t lucky enough, almost eight years later she doesn’t remember a thing. Or at least that’s what she tells me.

Take that, Rachel– you yelled at your kid. I launched mine. I win. I’m The Worst Mommy. Oh, that’s not really a crown you wanted, anyway?  Yeah, you’re right. Me neither.

6/3. Poor Me

I’m not complaining (yet), but my husband works nights.  Here is a handy-dandy spreadsheet to show you what that means with regard to the times we are both awake and home at the same time (in yellow) on a typical workday

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It’s not fantastic, but it’s far from awful. It’s possible that couples who both work 9-5 have the same amount of yellow on their spreadsheets (you don’t have a spreadsheet like this?  Ooh, I feel so smug and superior) that we do. Maybe even less. He’s around when the kids aren’t in school, and because I’m (mostly) asleep when he’s at work, I don’t have much time to worry about the fact that his job is dangerous.

So I’m not complaining. (Much.) It’s what we chose, and the night shift (or third shift, or third detail, or, incongruently enough, fifth detail, which is the same as third, of course) actually works pretty well for our family.  (Notice I wrote family.  Not “us,” because “us” includes my husband, and he sacrifices sleep for time with the kids and with me, so working nights does not always work so well for him.  This means he is a gem of a man married to a woman who is sometimes so consumed with worrying about the toll the lack of sleep takes on him that she forgets to relax during the time he’s sacrificing said sleep.) One of these years, he promises, he will transfer to the day shift. I look forward to having him home at night, though I admit there’s a tiny part of me that will miss knowing that if I hear a scary noise outside at 3am, I may have to wait for him to come deal with it, but when he does, he’ll be in uniform. Which is pretty awesome, and I’ll leave it at that.  I’m totally not trying to make you uncomfortable. 

But now, going into a three-day weekend, I’m complaining, and here’s why:

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(I really hope that’s not, like, classified, or anything. Don’t tell on me.)

The three colors on the calendar represent days-off rotations. My husband is blue. He’s off on blue days, works on yellow and pink. In effect, his “week” is nine days long: six on, three off.

It doesn’t seem so dire at first, does it? A long work week, followed by a long weekend. A little intense, but otherwise easy-peasy, right? Wrong! See how few of those days fall on actual weekends?

Here’s where the complaining really starts: My husband is off about 12 whole regular-world weekends a year. That’s about 40 weekends during which I’m solo with the kids.

Yes, I know. Some people have to work every weekend. Them’s the breaks, and I’m an ingrate to bitch about how hard it is for me that my husband has to work most weekends. Plenty of parents are solo with their kids on the weekends, even those who aren’t single parents. I need to suck it up and recognize how good I have it.

I’m trying, I am. But not very hard, or very well.

Saturdays are not terrible, because the kids and I go to synagogue, and there is routine there, and there are distractions, and there are friends. I’m pretty sure, though, that there are a few congregants who think I’m a single mother. There should be no shame in single motherhood, but it’s not fair to the father/husband who makes me NOT a single mother.  Sometimes during the post-service luncheon, I’ll make loud references to the kids about things we’ll do “when daddy finally wakes up,” figuring it’s better that people who don’t know him think he’s a lazy-ass rather than absent or non-existent.  (Which, as I write it, seems ill–conceived and may have to be reexamined as a strategy, as well as recognized as some pretty hideously self-serving passive-aggressiveness.  Have to revisit that.)

Then there are Sundays.  OMFG, I hate Sundays.  To be fair, I’ve always hated them, with their air of something aging, spoiling, turning sour. Ending. (Overwrought? Me?) Sundays are when (lots of) families are together, and Sundays are when I miss him the most. I miss him because I miss having my co-parent help to see our kids through the free-for-all that days off from school can be, especially when one of those kids thrives on routine (and by “thrives on,” I mean “is prone to falling apart without”). I miss him because I get bored without an adult coconspirator.  My kids are fun and sweet and smart and utterly, utterly beloved to me, yes, but they don’t like to people-watch, one of their favorite things to do during meals is to speak in a high-pitched, babyish “cat” voice (do not ask) and then double over in laughter at their own cleverness, and also I completely do not understand Pokemon. I miss him because I’m too self-conscious, insecure, and slightly deluded not to feel uncomfortable being one of the only ones out and about with kids but without a partner.

But the main reason I miss him and complain about the weekends he has to work is that it’s so good– the best– when he doesn’t have to. When the four of us are around, at leisure, together? It’s the best. We’re the best. We have the best kids, and he’s the best father, and the best partner. We’re lucky to have him. We’re lucky in general.

So yeah, I get greedy. That’s why I’m complaining. I know, I know. Poor me. Break out the tiny violin. But I’ve never been very good at keeping things in perspective, and right now the best I can do as far as the long view is concerned is to skip over Saturday and Sunday and look forward to that moment on Monday afternoon when my husband’s weekend starts.  That moment when the cat sprints down the hall because she’s the first to hear the bedroom door creak open, that moment when the kids call out “Daddy!” when he calls back “Hi guys!” still hoarse and groggy but smiling, and the fun– the best– can begin.

Will run for food

My friend Jo posted this on her FB wall:

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Since a peek at the dictionary for a definition of badass will bring up a photo of Jo, my response, at first, was duh. And then I looked at the post again, and I got pissed.  That’s a pretty skinny person up there, proclaiming she doesn’t run to be skinny. And maybe she doesn’t. Maybe that’s her natural body type, or maybe it just happens to be a side effect of all that training. That’s nice for her, but it’s not the case for all of us. Screw you and your smug sleekness, black-gear-with-red-accents runner. (Yes, I know you’re a stock photo. Guilty by association.)

Sorry to repeat myself, Jo, but I hate, hate, hate the idea that you’re less of a runner, that your exertion is impure if part of your motivation for running is to look better. I’ve been averaging about 120 miles a month for the past seven years. These days I run because I love the endorphins, because it clears my head, because I’m a little bit competitive, because it’s a way to spend more time with my husband, and because I can feel less guilty about my propensity to eat everything in sight. And I can assure you that the SOLE reason I started running in 2007 was because I looked at a picture of myself, hated what I saw, and figured running was my only option if I wanted to feel less fat. [Disclaimer: This is about me. I feel crappy when I feel fat. This is is not about you. It’s my blog, and I get to do that. Neat/obnoxious trick, huh?] We’re talking vanity as the only source of initial motivation. I like what I see in pictures somewhat more these days, and I run, in part, to maintain my appearance.

There is nothing wrong with that.  I am not cheapening the sport, and I’m not any less tough, or any less worthy of calling myself a runner. There’s no shame in running to be skinny. I just came back from a run, and I pushed myself to go a little farther and a little faster because last night I completely overindulged on leftovers of the ridiculously amazing steak W grilled. I’m pretty sure my run was as authentic and grueling as that of red-trim smuggity-smugitude up there.

I will never be the badass that Jo is. I will never be the runner she is. I’m okay with that. And lest it seem she’s on the wrong side here, I should include the comment she made: To clarify, someone who’s badass and eats yellow cake with chocolate frosting.

Okay, Jo, I just finished  a 7.5-miler.  Pass me some cake.

Wuss

A stranger in a green Jeep followed me home from the gym the other day. When I turned into our driveway, she pulled up in front of the house and rolled down her window. I thought she needed directions, or was stopping to check her phone, but when I turned off the car and opened my door, she called out to me.

“You just cut me off in that parking lot back there,” she said. “You pulled out, you weren’t even looking, and you almost hit me. And then you just drove off. Did you even know you did that?”

Nope. I did not.

Her voice was raised, but she wasn’t shouting. I was standing about two car-lengths away, so otherwise she might have been hard to hear. She didn’t curse, and she didn’t threaten me. I felt shaky and scared. And being scared made me angry, too, but only partly at her. I was also pissed-off at myself, and not for (allegedly) cutting her off, either.

I’m proud to be a New York ex-pat living in the Midwest. As a college student here, I decided my provenance had cachet, and milked that cachet whenever I could. Conversations with native Wisconsinites went more or less like this:

Native Wisconsinite, casually: Where are you from?

Me, just as casually: New York.

NW, less casually: Oh, really? Where in New York?

Me, more casually: New York City.

NW, not casual: Really? Cool!

Me, supremely casual: Well, the Bronx, actually.

(Spare me your outrage, Manhattanites. New York City has five boroughs, and the Bronx is one of those five. To my Midwestern friends, I apologize. I was a college student, desperately needing to impress. If you ask me now where I grew up, I will tell you I come from a lovely part of the Bronx that is 3 blocks from Westchester County. I fully disclose now, really, though you’re still free to make whatever assumptions you want.)

And there it was. From the Bronx. In New York City. New Yorkers are, ahem, mouthy, straightforward, no bullshit, tell-it-like-it-is. And people from the Bronx are, to a person, of course, New Yorkers who are also tough and intimidating (until you get on their good side). I was, and am, happy to see in myself all of those qualities.

I do possess those qualities, I suppose, but only when I’m among friends. Charming, right? If I’m comfortable with you, I will, as necessary, share my opinions, disagree with you, be pushy, and stand up for myself. (I will also almost certainly agonize, privately, over what I should and shouldn’t have said. That’s another story.)

If I don’t know you well or at all, though, and we’re face-to-face, I am non-confrontational and conflict-averse. The righteous indignation of which I am otherwise a font gets stopped-up. I’m not a complete pushover. The employees in the business office of our health insurance provider do, I think, quake when they see my name on caller ID. Or at least I hope they do. If you cut in front of me on line, I will call you on it. (Okay, this has to be said: Cashiers, I know you’re overworked and underpaid, but for heaven’s sake, you can’t just announce “Register open!” and let the chips fall where they may. That creates anarchy. What you mean to say, what maintains balance in the retail universe, is “Next customer on line!”) But I am much more easily intimidated than I should be. This is a pathetically first-world lament, but why the hell didn’t I point out, even gently, to the ludicrously cranky gym manager begrudgingly showing me how to use the circuit-training equipment that I had, in fact, made an appointment, that this was a service covered by my membership dues, and that it was reasonable of me to expect her to show me (again! Gasp! I asked for a review!) how to use the pec fly machine without her sighing audibly? Why did I instead nod politely after she’d gone through the motions of checking my form and then proceed to do the exercise wrong for several weeks?

I want to be better at standing up for myself—whether I’m right or wrong—in interactions with people who are not my friends or my family. I’d prefer not to feel threatened, but if I do, I don’t want to feel weak.

I want to be the kind of person who used a firm and authoritative tone to tell the woman in the green Jeep that the way to let someone know she’s wronged you automotively is not to follow her home and tell her off, but to use the horn or your middle finger. Both, if necessary. I am not suggesting that would have been the right thing to say, but it’s what I would like to have said.

Obviously, it was not what I said. Instead, I apologized. Several times. I even thanked her for bringing the matter to my attention—it nauseates me that I did that. Basically, I rolled over, then she rolled up her window and drove away.

It’s entirely possible that I did cut her off. I’m a fine driver, but when L asked me how hard driving is, on a scale of one to ten, with ten being the hardest, I told her that when I first learned, it was a ten and now it’s a two, and it occurred to me that that’s when your driving gets sloppy—when it becomes easy.

Anyway, I’m still angry at the woman in the green Jeep, because what the hell? You seriously followed me home? Seriously? Who does that? Who does that in this town? Frown and shake your head and move on with your day like everyone else, yeesh. I’m also grateful to her, and a little jealous. The cop I married would be appalled at this, but I aspire to emulate her. I want to seek out confrontation in uncertain situations if there’s a stand I need to take.

I drive more cautiously now, especially in the gym parking lot. Just in case.

Braces

The orthodontist’s office brings out the best in no one. Actually, that’s a lie; my kid’s orthodontist’s assistants shine brighter than a thousand suns. I’m not really talking about them, though.

I’m talking about the patients and their families. Oh, those teens and pre-teens and tweens (those last two might be the same thing, no? I’d look into it in service of precision, but since doing so might force me to crawl out from under my denial that I’m the mother of one of them, I’m choosing to whistle as I walk away from the redundancy), those awkward, pained creatures with their pimples, their straggly hair, their sullen countenances.  Maybe they’re not that bad in real life, but I’m telling you, in that tidy four-chair treatment room, that’s all I see. It is obvious that this is one of the few activities not worth getting to skip school for.

And oh, those parents, silent as they watch and wait. They look harassed.  They look poor, even those well-turned-out ones who carry expensive bags and wear nice shoes. Or maybe I’m just projecting. Even though I know how insanely fortunate we are to be able to afford orthodontia for our older child, the amounts we’re paying must keep us teetering on the brink of insolvency, right?  They must.

My daughter and I, we’re also at our worst, though we’re not like the others.  I’m certain we’re the worst of the worst in our uniqueness.

L is naturally anxious and naturally curious, and in the orthodontist’s office the two combine in a maelstrom that keeps her talking, questioning, moving.  She’s telling them that she thinks her wire is working just fine, that they don’t need to tighten it or change it, she’s asking, when, again, will the braces come off, and are they sure they know how to make the glue release?  How will they do it?  Will it taste bad?  Are they sure? She’s lying on her belly on the chair, she’s reaching over to the tray with the instruments, she’s getting up and walking to the mirrors over the sink because she can’t get a good view in the handheld one. She’s taking off her shoes (or glaring at me because I told her to keep them on), she’s crying because she’s afraid it will hurt, she’s taking forever to choose the color of the new bands that will go on her brackets, she’s demanding to know why the orthodontist wants to keep hurting her.  She’s being horrible.

Or at least that’s the way I see it. And that is why I am the absolute worst of all.  I am tenser than the wire in my child’s mouth. I am poised on the edge of my chair, ready to pounce. I tell her to hush, I tell her to lie still, to keep her hands to herself, to put the mirror down. I tell her she’s asked that question before, that the orthodontist and his assistants know what they’re doing, that she doesn’t have to know the answer to every single question.  I placate her with the iPad while she’s waiting, then take it back so that it doesn’t get in the way while she’s being examined. Enough, I say, enough.  Just chill out, relax, so things can be over quicker. Just. Stop.

And I do this other thing, this thing that I loathe myself for even as I’m doing it, this thing that I do over and over again. I make eye contact with whatever orthodontist’s assistant is working on L (the orthodontist is usually too busy to look at anything other than his patients’ mouths), and I roll my eyes. I roll my eyes to say I know she’s a handful; yeah, she sure is a chatty one; gosh, it’s hard to be patient with her sometimes; Uch, I wish she’d just control herself better. I roll my eyes to acknowledge that she’s the loudest kid in the room and that I’m embarrassed.  Most shamefully, I roll my eyes to show that am above this nonsense. I ask their forgiveness for my child, the nuisance.

The orthodontist’s assistants, bless them, smile at me in return. Their smiles are uniformly white and perfect, and they are genuine. I don’t think they’re smiling out of forbearance (of which they have plenty; anyone who remains pleasant with a scowling teen wearing headphones during his examination and grunting monosyllabic replies to questions like How’s the retainer feeling? is a saint in my book), and I don’t think they’re smiling because I’m her mother and that’s the polite thing to do.

I think they’re smiling because my kid is cute. Or at least quirky, but in an appealing way. My eye-roll is annoyed, and their smiles are understanding.  Yup, they’re telling me. She’s a talker, and a hell of a fidget. Sure, we’d rather she’d hold off with the questions until our fingers are out of her mouth, but no biggie. We’ve got time to give her answers. This is, like, less than a tenth of a percent of our month. And really, no one else in here is bothered. They don’t notice, or they’re amused. And duh, lady, she’s scared! We’re poking and prodding and pulling and pushing—do you not remember those cheek expanders? You don’t have to have A Clockwork Orange as a reference to be terrified by them. This stuff we’re doing hurts, sometimes. We get it. No judgment. It’s okay.

It’s okay. It’s okay. That’s what I murmured to her—my sweet, whip-smart, inquisitive, loving girl, who excels at goofiness like no one I’ve ever met—to soothe her when she was a newborn.  It’s what I’ve taught her to tell herself when her worries start to take over.  It’s clearly something I need to remember next time we’re in that office, so that I can try to tamp down the worst in myself.  It’s okay, because she’s my girl.  Turn up your music, exercise that saintly patience, count the money we’re paying you, whatever it takes.  She’s my girl, I’m her mom, and we will get through this orthodontia. (With as little eye-rolling as humanly possible from now on, I promise.)