Saturday, August 22, 2009

Family Vacation? Help! Cries Mom, Send Moose and Squirrel!

At a particularly low moment yesterday, I whimpered to my seven-year-old son, "Would you stop talking? Please?"

"Mom, why do bees have sticky hair?"


"Because they use honey combs!"

It was Day 3 of a week-long stay on Cape Cod. Every day I'd been pulling my son Nick on the tagalong attached to my rental bike. Yesterday had included the dubious adventure of going to Martha's Vineyard by ferry—with the bike—for a grunting tour on dusty roads in close to 90-degree heat. Just a hint for the Obamas when they get here this weekend.

For those unfamiliar with children's bike equipage, a tagalong is a third wheel and handlebars that can be connected to an adult bike. That means pulling approximately 80 additional pounds, counting the small child who will inevitably squirm and, in Nick's case, pedal backwards.

By this low moment, we'd returned to Wood's Hole and made it off the ferry. Sweat was pouring down my face, but Nick perched happily on the tagalong, still talking at my back.

"Mom, in the Vietnam War, did people want to escape?"

"Not now!" I huffed. "Can't you see how much I'm working?"

God. I'd resorted to waspishness: Can't you see how much I'm [fill in the blank]? Evil Mom. Shouldn't I be thrilled that my child loves to ask questions? Serious questions about Vietnam, his birth country? Tough questions like "Why does China own Tibet?"

I am thrilled. Yet the brilliant monologues on the back of my bike are also mixed with fully dramatized scenes from the Rocky and Bullwinkle show—"What's your name, Natasha? Fatale, Fatale! Boris darlink, even Moose and Squirrel know that. Boris, you leetle squirt!"

I don't do well on family vacations. It takes at least a week of grueling exercise to slow down my mind. Or a week of complete solitude in a cabin miles from civilization. I seem to learn this every summer, as we spend a week at the Cape or on an island in Maine, my son a different age each time, and me longing for a few seconds to stare into space or to hike ten miles by myself. Instead I get my son full-throttle, with no child-care breaks and endless negotiations about what to do next, and me feeling horribly guilty.

Typical po-mo feminist mom. Typical entitled selfish ridiculous writer mom.

A few disclaimers: My husband enjoys the family time of these vacations. He also gives me breaks. However, some of our trips are tied to his work—as this one was to an academic conference—and so he's often gone during the day, while my son and I are left with each other. This is both good and bad.

During one of our treks on the Shining Sea Bikeway between Wood's Hole and North Falmouth, for instance, I was struck by the trail's beauty, even during a heat wave. Yet for me, cresting a small hill with a view over coastal marshland to the shore, it just wasn't the same with this exchange:

Me: "How gorgeous!"

Little chatterer: "Did you know Boris eats rutabagas?"

Me: "Look at the ocean."

LC: "What's a rutabaga?"

At one point, when I was negotiating a tricky turn into a beach parking lot with a UPS truck barreling micrometers from my son's exposed leg, the little chatterer said, "Mom, can I tell you the names for all those guys in my story, Kun the Turtle, his friends' names, remember you said we could figure out what would happen—"

"NOT NOW!" I cried. "Can't you see how much I'm concentrating?"

"Is it OK if I keep talking? You don't have to answer."

He kept talking. Within moments, I was answering.

When I complain about the little chatterer, my husband laughs. He's the one who usually gets stuck with the tagalong on our family bike rides.

"I just don't answer him," he says. "Pretty soon he shuts up."

He's a good guy, my husband, and a practical one. But I think I'm wired differently. Words make me respond—it's the writer in me, the pedant. Words are luscious things, not just chit-chat or time-fillers, and despite every drip of sweaty frustration with the chatterer these past few days, I know that words have weight for Nick, too. They are himself: Look at me, look at me, what do you think? Am I funny? Am I fabulous? Will you always love me? Can we get married? Will I be famous someday?

It's amazing, really, being privy to so much that's usually private in adults. Once, as I was wrestling with the bike locks, Nick tugged my arm.



"Why do people like me?"

I wanted to melt, and not from the heat. "Because you have great ideas," I said. "Because you're funny."

Nick kept looking up at me, as if unconvinced.

Because you're you, I thought.

OK, I love this child. Maybe expecting a family vacation to be a vacation is a fool's errand. Maybe vacation is the wrong word. It's more like moments of being—strings of shiny shells interspersed with stinking seaweed and whiny requests for ice cream.

On one of our first mornings here, Nick crept into bed with us, snuggling against me, and fell right back to sleep. I held my husband's hand, and he squeezed mine, as if transmitting his warmth to me and to Nick, who was silent for once, blessedly silent.

But I realized later, during another tagalong monologue—You know the thing I like best? Mom? Living!—that by listening to children, we affirm who they are. Listening is as important as touch; it gives them the freedom to shout and argue and annoy and bedazzle.

I try to explain what a rutabaga is or why China has colonized Tibet. I tell my little chatterer that I love life, too, although I'm not sure it would be my number-one choice if I had to live without the people I love.

LC says, "Yeah." Then he cracks a joke, putting on his Boris Badenov accent.

I know that I can't protect my son from all harm. But I can inoculate him against despair. And if I do—please, God, yes! I love living!—perhaps I can also inoculate myself.

This post originally appeared on Athena's Head, Martha's Open Salon blog.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Seven-Year-Olds Don't Get Star Trek

Here are two random facts my son Nick knows: Mr. Spock has green blood. The guys in red shirts always die. When the new Star Trek movie came out this spring, and my husband and I saw it, Nick became more curious. I thought--hoped--our seven-year-old was ready to hop aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, at least with the far less violent, 1960s TV series.

I envisioned us watching all the episodes together, me professing about them in mini-ethics lessons: the value of loyalty, respect for differences, a can-do attitude. Nick is an adoptee, born in Vietnam, and I thought Trek's inclusive vision might add an extra spark. I'd reminisce about when I first saw those episodes as re-runs in the '70s. In my ninth-grade geometry class, I had wryly picked them apart with my fellow nerds.

Imagine my anticipation, then, a few weeks ago, when Nick and I watched his first, "The Trouble with Tribbles." In it, a space station and the Enterprise get inundated with furry little creatures. The story is played for laughs, with one goofy fight, but nothing scary for any child (like ours) who loves Jackie Chan.

Nick wasn't scared. He was bored. Within moments of the opening credits, he was squirming beside me on the couch, begging to watch something else.

It suddenly became clear to me that, developmentally, my seven-year-old isn't ready for the complex system of obligations and loyalties that animate Star Trek. He didn't get any of the relationships among the crew. He didn't get the friendship between Spock and Kirk. He didn't get the notion of competing space empires, or why Captain Kirk was so snappily pissed off at a petty bureaucrat.

While what I like may rub off on my son, it does so in ways I can't predict. Nick holds up his fingers in the Vulcan salute, giggling as he says, "Live long and what?" Then I play earnest parent, "casually" mentioning that Mr. Spock is half-human, half-Vulcan. Kind of like an international adoptee, huh? To date, Nick's response has been a shrug.

If he doesn't get the social complexity of Star Trek, it's unlikely he gets the convolutions of adoption, either. I think I've known this all along. But when a boy is an only child who's used to conversing with adults, sometimes even this hyper-intellectual mom forgets he's very young.

We've talked openly about his adoption since he was a baby, trying to normalize words like "orphanage" and "birth parents." Just the other day, he made up the following riddle:

Question: "What do you call a baby elephant?"

Answer: "An El-orphan."

But in assuming all babies are orphans, my son has got a whole world, maybe a whole universe, of coming to terms ahead of him.

By the time Mr. Spock's bicultural dilemma begins to resonate with Nick, he'll have his own ideas about morality and ethics. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's plaid-pants version may appeal to him; or maybe he'll like Star Trek: The Next Generation's New Age spin, with the android Data who just wants to be human.

Nick was drawing cartoon ninja figures when "The Trouble with Tribbles" finally ended. He still sat with me on the couch, though. He kept close, and I finished the last of my wine and stared at the infinite sky outside our living-room window.

I felt sad; I felt cleansed of delusion for a few seconds. I saw all the questions Nick will be asking about himself as he gets older, and the many versions of him materializing out of dust and light and our imaginations.

He's already boldly going elsewhere.