Thursday, October 19, 2006

"I Will Never ..."

Before I had kids, I had a long list of things that I would never do. They ranged from the reasonable (I would never leave my children alone in the car at the grocery store) to the vain (I would never let my children dress themselves in mismatched clothes) to the hysterically funny (I would not get morning sick, since it was all psychological anyway).

As it so often does, reality intervened. I only leave them in the car long enough to put the grocery cart back. Mary can dress herself during the week, but I get to dress her on Sundays, and she may not wear a striped top with differently striped pants if she's planning to leave the house. Morning sickness ... well, let's just say I only adhered to the letter of the law on that one, because "morning" only covered about 25% of the time I was sick, and "sickness" falls laughably short of an adequate description of the misery my pregnancies put me through.

Within days of bringing Mary home from the hospital, I suddenly understood why women went around with hairstyles that would scare the cast of "Night of the Living Dead." I understood how "clean" could become a relative term. I understood how one could make fashion choices based on whether or not the stains on the shirt in question could be disguised by a cleverly positioned infant. "I will never" quickly degenerated into "I will probably not, at least I don't think so, as long as it never really becomes an issue, but then maybe."

One rule that I stuck to, though, was that my children would not be allowed to play violent games with gun-related toys. We ended up with a couple of vaguely pistol-shaped squirt guns (fifty cents at Wal-Mart!), but I didn't worry much about them because a) they were purple, b) the kids had no aim to speak of, and c) they lost some of their menace when they they emerged from the lawnmower in ninety-eight tiny purple pieces. Other than that, though, I was consistent on this important parenting decision.

It wasn't without reason, either. I knew women who were convinced that by keeping all weapon-like toys out of their homes, their sons would grow up to be gentle, sweet men who would never dream of doing anything violent. I didn't set my hopes quite that high, but I feel that it would be a safer environment if my children were not playing with the increasingly realistic-looking toy guns that are now on the market for little kids.

Michael backed me up on this, not too surprisingly. His father came home from Vietnam with a Purple Heart and a list of surgeries that would curl your hair if I told you about them, and he had had quite enough of guns by the time Michael arrived. Michael and his brothers played with all manner of toys as kids, and the lack of toy guns didn't seem to have warped them too terribly. My sister and I never particularly wanted guns, and we turned out just fine. When Michael and I started a family, we had a gun-free house, and violence was simply never an issue for us. Mission accomplished, right?

Wrong. What I didn't realize was that our initial success was due to one thing, and one thing only: We had had a GIRL.

Peter didn't have guns. Peter didn't NEED guns. He was a stick man from before he could talk, and let me tell you, if you're into sticks, everything is a stick. You could hear him coming from several yards away -- Whack! Whack! Whack! And as he got older and his aim improved, Whack! Whack! "OWWWW! Mo-o-o-ommmmm!" We encouraged him to touch softly, to use gentle words and soft hands, and to "pat pat pat" instead of hitting everything with impartial enthusiasm.

I didn't realize quite what a grand and sweeping failure this approach had been until he got his own sword. He is heavily into all things "Peter Pan" right now, and since the little curly-toed green shoes were more than I wanted to tackle as the family's chief costume designer, we took the easy route -- pirate hat from PaPa, red turtleneck from Target, and pre-packaged hook and sword from Fred Meyer. He was Captain Hook, or so I thought, until he geared up for battle and announced his intentions.

Here was my sweet, soft, fuzzy-headed little boy, standing on the arm of the couch with a plastic sword in his hand and the fiery bloodlust of a grog-swilling, foulmouthed, grizzled old swashbuckler in his eye. He brandished his weapon, eyed his audience, and roared, "I CHOP Captain Hook! Like THIS! Right in the NECK!" This pronouncement was followed up with a startlingly realistic-looking slash that would have at the very least given the old pirate reason to shave carefully for the next few days.

I shouldn't have laughed, but I did. I laughed so hard I was afraid I was going to fall right out of my kitchen chair, and I'm still laughing about it.

I think it's probably the best response, when I get thinking about the other "I have nevers" that have escaped my lips in the last few years. If "I will never let my daughter drive my Mustang because she might drive it into a mailbox" goes the way of the rest of the list, I'm going to need all the practice laughing I can get.

Friday, October 06, 2006

First Star to the Left

My hands smell of rosemary chicken, cold vomit, and fairy dust.

I tried a new recipe tonight, more ambitious than most, since I tend to select main dishes by asking, "Does it go with French fries?" It involved the dismembering of a chicken, an overnight marinade, and fresh everything. I enjoyed the subtle tang of the lemon and the spicy kick of the rosemary. Peter wasn't so sure about it. Once it was removed from the offending bone and cut into small pieces (suitable for dipping in his ubiquitous ranch dressing, of course), he deigned to try several bites, and even let slip that he might like it a little.

Once I got the dishes cleared and the leftovers packaged up, the family had a little drive to take. We had ended up with one car at home and the other at Michael's work, and we needed to drive the ten minutes to work and pick up the other car. It was going to be a quick trip, and Mary was delighted to discover that she didn't even have to put her shoes on. We tried to sell Peter on that, but once we got in the car, it was evident that he really wanted his shoes.

We decided, unwisely, to attempt to distract him rather than give in to the demands for shoes. "Look, Peter, we're riding in the car! It's dark out! Isn't this fun?" We were only two houses away when the crying turned to coughs, the coughs turned to gags, and the rosemary chicken hit the floor. We sighed, turned the car around, and went home. Michael took Peter upstairs and changed his clothes, and I hauled the carseat out into the yard in the routine that has become mindless from repetition -- hose on, hard spray, ready, aim, squirt. I sprayed it clean and dried it off, fetched three hand towels from the kitchen (one damp, two dry -- don't ask), cleaned up the worst of the inside of the car, and followed it up with warm water and ammonia. We laid a thick towel over the carseat and tried again, this time with shoes.

Trauma forgotten, he started chattering away about his latest fascination, the Disney movie Peter Pan. He falls into verbal patterns with these interests, reciting the same phrases and wishes: "I gonna fly! Peter Pan gotta help me." He wants to go on a pirate ship. The crocodile's coming. He wants to be Captain Hook, with a coat and a hook and a box in a room. (We think this is the treasure chest, but we're not quite sure, since pillows occasionally enter the narrative as well.) This time, though, he wandered into a new flight of fancy, announcing that he would go to Never Never Land, with a whimsical description of who would be there: Everybody, it seems, but Darth Vader, who is relegated in solitary exile to his space ship up in the sky.

Mary joined in the fun, quoting the story's directions to Never Never Land: "First star to the right, and straight on 'til morning." In her usual tangential fashion, she came up with all sorts of ideas of things for Peter to do when he got to the mythical isle, and then asked in a startled voice, "What would happen if you took the first star to the left?" I laughed and said, "Good question!"

The rest of the drive was uneventful, and when we got to Michael's work he took the kids home and I drove the other car home, still smiling to myself at Peter's unexpectedly imaginative ramblings. As I settled into the comfortable roar and rattle of my old Mustang, my mind returned to Mary's comment. What does happen if you take the first star to the left? Are you lost in space? Do you find a different, crocodile-free fairyland? Is it, perhaps, the directions to the Death Star?

I think, though, that maybe that's what happened when Peter was born. We took the first star to the left. I didn't realize it at first, because things look pretty similar at first -- a few rays of light, plenty of dreaming, and a whole lot of being up in the middle of the night when the rest of the world is asleep. But after a while, there's the growing realization that something's funny about the constellations. Lots of stars, yes, nice stars, but they just don't look right. And then the hunch is solidified by the speech therapist's suspicions, verified by the autism specialists, and hammered irrevocably into place by the team of experts from the hospital -- his brain should have turned right at that star back there.

Slowly, we're discovering the geography of this island. We've met a few crocodiles, that's for sure. We found some other Lost Boys, and while we can't always play with them, we can play near them, and that works pretty well. It's a messy little world. There are more diapers than in Never Never Land, and people throw up more. People hit and break things a lot, and some of them can't walk or talk very well.

The best thing about this fairyland, though, is that a lot of the kids have their mommies with them. You don't get to bring your mommy to Never Never Land, but you can bring her here. Also, these mommies come equipped with sharp pointy swords -- pirates don't mess with these gals more than once. The trails through the woods are wheelchair accessible, and the midnight feasts are mostly Cheerios and string cheese. There are no wild Indians, just physical therapists and classroom aides. The nights can be dark, and sometimes the trees close in and the shadows overwhelm the firelight. But here, usually when you least expect it, there's still fairy dust.

Fairy dust like you'd never believe.