Bad Guys Don’t Have Birthdays, and Mbot Ate Mommy

This little guy, eat me? It beats the alternative…. (Mbot. Photo credit: Solveig Haugland)

The weekend out of town with old friends was as wonderful as I’d hoped, and I returned home (extremely tired, but that’s part of the game) to about what I expected: requests I’d made had been ignored but everyone was alive. Husbot reported that on Sunday morning, Gbot awoke early, as usual, and announced, “Mbot ate Mama.” Then he added sadly, “Mama was our friend.”

His explanation for my absence made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. And up until a couple of weeks ago I might have just left it at “oh, how cute.” But I have been reading a book called “Bad Guys Don’t Have Birthdays: Fantasy Play at Four” (The University of Chicago Press, 1988) It was written by Vivan Gussin Paley nearly twenty-five years ago, won the 1990 James N. Britton Award, and should be required reading for anyone who’s ever walked into Party City and purchased a candle in the shape of the number 4.

At the time she wrote this slim volume, Ms. Paley had been a preschool teacher for two decades. In order to understand the complex systems of play she witnessed daily among three- and four-year-olds, she began recording conversations and transcribing them each evening, documenting the children’s play and interaction, discerning patterns, connecting the play to events occurring in each child’s life, examining the interpersonal dynamics and excavating the “rules” of play. The book follows a group of four-year-olds through a school year, acting out such complications as a new baby in the family, parents working, the appearance of an older relative’s boyfriend.

“In fantasy play” writes Paley, “you sidestep that which cannot be controlled and devise scenes in which fears are resolved.”

Discovering this book was like unearthing the Rosetta Stone to Mbot’s play and conversation, or, for fans of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, like having a Babblefish on my shoulder: I suddenly and, it felt, magically, am beginning to understand the language he and Gbot use to describe the world they create daily–or rather create, change, destroy, and re-create–so richly inhabited by good guys and bad guys, Good Luke (Skywalker) and Bad Luke, Good Spiderman and Bad Cockroach Spiderman, Wonder Woman and Cinderella and Ree-punzel and dragons and four-headed monsters and bullet guns and laser beams and dy-no-mite.

What is all this violent talk and bam-bam-bam! with a Trio “gun”, I often wondered, when Mbot has trouble watching any movie–from Ratatouille to Babe–without running with a yelp into the kitchen while I fastforward through the parts where anyone is talking or acting in a hurtful way?

In part, here’s what this talk is: he is acting out his fears and overcoming them–just like Paley’s students do:

“A master of disguises, Fredrick will conjure up new dangers and, with a flick of his cape, be the instrument of rescue. In so doing it is he who is saved.”

He is taking control of his world. In Paley’s words, “Any unknown, it seems, can be made into a bad guy.”  And in play, “I pretend, therefore I am. I pretend, therefore I know.”

If Mbot ate me, Mbot’s the bad guy, and my absence in much less threatening than if I had left on purpose. And in the bots’ world, it is a fact–reinforced in everything from Burt Dow, Deep Water Man to Your Body Battles a Stomachache–that what has been eaten can be rescued, regurgitated, or resurrected. And my return Monday morning showed him he was right.

Shelve the Guilt, Girl, and Go

Girl’s Night Out: Not only increasing your own health and happiness, but giving your bots the best possible chances of survival. (

Husbot returned Thursday night from two days on the road (work), and when he asked about weekend plans, I reminded him that I was flying to Denver for forty-three hours to attend a party celebrating the thirty-fifth wedding anniversary of dear friends whom I hadn’t seen in ten years..

“Oh,” he said. “I forgot.”

He was stressed out from work, the dog had been peeing twelve times a day, not always outside, and I know he’d been looking forward to a respite. “It’s okay,” he assured me, sincerely, but after a moment of silence. “I just forgot it was this weekend.”

Although he spends hours each day and most of every weekend with the bots, it’s an entirely different gig if you’re playing solo.

“Ginger’s coming for fours Saturday and again on Sunday,” I added. “And Grandma wants a couple of hours each day with them, one at a time. And I’ll be back at 9:30 Monday morning.” The heavy silence told me he was trying to remember the last time he had taken a vacation, but was probably too tired to recall.

I am fortunate that he recognizes the value of vacations. But I wanted to explain to him that, although I am thrilled to be going, although I will have a splendid time because I love these people and I will get to sleep in on Sunday morning and none of this will feel like work, this isn’t a vacation: It’s part of my job.

When I gave birth to Mbot, I was teaching a college writing course, nursing and pumping a combined ten hours a day, and patchworking together an average of five hours of sleep in every twenty-four. Every single second of every day was accounted for. Every moment I spent lying down, nursing, pumping, teaching, reading, writing, errand-running, laundering, cooking, showering, emailing, talking on the phone with sister, brother, friends, I asked myself, “Am I using this moment to its greatest efficiency? Does this really need to be done?”

I found myself justifying the time I spent emailing and on the phone (let me tell you, not much) and at the same time it was daawning on me that I was the one upon which responsibility wordlessly fell to create and send out birth announcements, bot pictures, updates, birthday cards. To respond to offers to help and invitations to dinner. To take bots to visit friends and out-of-state relatives. These last few things fell under the umbrella of social secretary—not social-ite.

And I found that no one took seriously the time or energy necessary to maintain our connections with family and friends. It’s the sort of thing that men, I think, consider an extracurricular activity that women do because we’re just gabby girls and like to do it. And I do enjoy much of it. I also find much of it a pain in the ass: (summoning patience during my mother-in-law’s sililoquies, updating my (woefully unupdated) Facebook page).

It’s probably taught in Sociology 101, but it took motherhood for me to figure this out: what might be labeled by society as mindless, frivolous socialilzing serves a very specific purpose: the maintenance of a community that will not only support and nurture the bots as they grow, but will support them and nurture them in the event of my absence.

By spending precious time and energy (and Husbot’s time and energy in the form of American Express), I’m strengthening bonds that will very likely help my children survive and thrive. I’m sending out the message: I care about you. I’m there for you. And please don’t forget about us.

Mahjong Dream Club: Playstation hopes to attract men to this traditionally all-women table game. (

This responsibility—the keeper of connections–falls, traditionally, on the woman. And judging from Husbot’s nonexistent social schedule, if I counted on him to do it, people would start thinking the earth really is flat and that we’d fallen off the edge of it.

Of course, if you’re Facebooking instead of feeding your bots breakfast, you might want to consider scaling down your social network. But otherwise—drop the guilt, moms. When you’re chatting on your cell with your best friend from college instead of folding minature pants? You’re just doing your job.

The Love Boomerang

Today, we tested this hypothesis. (

We had one of those days you could make a movie out of. And even the bots know that in a movie, before the happy ending, something bad needs to happen.

The real-life drama began at 10:30 a.m. It set out on a quest: to Toys ‘R’ Us for a bubble gun, Play Doh, and poker chips.

Mbot asked if he could take Junepbear into the store. He sometimes asks, and I always say no. He never fusses. But today, I was feeling extra-magnanimous. I thought, “it’s just a quick trip. And if he has one hand filled with Junepbear, then he cannot touch as many toys.” And so I said yes.

We found a bubble gun. We found the Play Doh. (On sale! But it’s cheaper at Target). We checked out. The bots’ behavior was exemplary. Which is why, upon leaving, I stopped when Gbot clambered into the big toy car in the vestibule between the sliding sets of exit doors, wherein lie The Claw game, bubble gum machine, and various other mechanisms meant to lift the last of your change from your pockets. I did not put a quarter in the car.

Nonetheless, Gbot pretended to steer with delight for a few minutes, and then it was Mbot’s turn. He climbed up, and very carefully set Junepbear on top of the truck. I looked at the enormous floppy old bear there and thought, “We are going to forget him. We can’t forget him. Of course we won’t. There’s no way. He’s huge. He’s blue. The top of the car is red. I am looking right at him. And we’ll only be another sixty seconds.” Sixty seconds later we headed out to the car.

Fast-forward 4 1/2 hours. My niece had come to botsit while I went to a coffeeshop to work. At 2:40, I left the coffee shop for home via Toys ‘R’ Us because I’d forgotten the poker chips. I got them. I returned home at 3 o’clock and decided to load everyone up with the hope of driving them quickly to sleep. As my niece strapped them in, I went searching for bears. Found none. Checked the car. Not there. Under the beds I found Spruce Bear. And that’s when I remembered the last place I’d seen Junep. On top of the play car at Toys ‘R’ Us. The one I had twenty minutes ago walked right past. Lying trustingly against the red paint. Waiting patiently and silently. An empty dread filled my ribcage. I ran through the house again, looking everywhere. But the bear had left the building.

Mbot, mercifully, did not fully grasp the gravity of the situation. He was cheerful that we were going back to the toy store. But what if someone had walked off with Junep? Look! A free bear! A big one! It was unthinkable.

I broke the speed limit heading south. Now that my registration is current, I was only breaking one law, not two at once, which is a key, a former boyfriend pointed out long ago, to avoiding run-ins with the law (see The Ex-Con’s Rule).

We marched into the vestibule. Another cold flash as I saw the red top of the car: empty. We marched to the customer service counter. I knew before we reached it that Junep wasn’t there. He would have been on top of a counter. The employee persisted, even after I’d described the missing party, to look in cupboards into which he could not possibly fit. I was irritated but at the same time I appreciated her perseverence. She called someone on her walkie-talkie. No one had heard of Junepbear. “Thank you,” I said. Mbot remained mercifully unconcerned, sure that the universe would spit his beloved back out. Sure that his bear was back home on his bed.

On the way out, we re-entered the vestibule. We would look there again. Gbot broke free and climbed back up into the driver’s seat of the play car. I turned to watch him–and there on the floor, wedged between the car’s rear wheel and the Claw game, was a crumpled, raggedy lump of faded blue. I believe I closed my eyes in relief and felt another wash of emptiness in my chest and abdomen, a “but what if….”  I picked up Junep. I handed him to Mbot, who smiled brightly and held him tight. “You’re here!” he cried, and Mbot constructed an elaborate and entirely fictional narrative about why the bear was there, and I’m afraid I was so awash with relief that I can’t remember a word of it.

The symmetry–or asymmetry–appeals to me: that loving something so much and so long and so hard actually raises the chances that others will find it physicaly unappealing. It’s some kind of good karma, what you love coming back to you.

But Junepbear has totally lost his shopping privileges.

Airplane Tip #28: Traveling With “Help” May Not Be Helpful

If only I could just carry on the whole rental couch, traveling would be SO much easier.

…Unless the help is hired, in which case they should fear being fired and so will respond favorably to a dirty look thrown at them with the force of a grenade. Help in the form of relatives, however, especially older adult relatives, cannot be fired.

I gleaned this tip, which I’m only guessing is #28, on Friday, traveling home from the beach, with Grandma, Uncle Marty, and Uncle Sammy.

When you’ve got a 30-month-old and a 48-month-old, no one travels quite like you. I did not realize this until we stood twelfth, thirtheenth, fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth in the security line at John Wayne International Airport. “It will be so much easier for you, flying with us,” Grandma said.

Now, unless “easier” has been redefined to mean “more stressful and irritating,” she was wrong.

Imagine that I use the word “stood” is the loosest of terms, at least in relation to the bots. They were weaving in and out between legs and wheelie carry-ons and spontaneously squatting to snuggle with bears who were strapped to their wheelie carry-ons. I manage these behaviors. I do not restrict them. Do I like my children collecting cooties on the airport floor? No. Do I like that it takes several seconds to corral the bots for a three-foot move forward? No. That they don’t stand still? No. But you makes makes your choices and you takes your chance and this–accomanied by bots–is how I choose to travel. And it always works. We have not contracted any major life-threatening contagions. We have never missed a flight. We have never been the subjects of a lawsuit or been to jail.

On Friday, I was never so aware of our unique way of traveling, pointed out to me by the three adults who felt it necessary to “help” us.

I appreciate a little help from strangers–someone who pushes my fifth bin along the x-ray belt when my hands are otherwise occupied. Or who makes the bots laugh, and therefore stand still, for twenty seconds while I am shoving our boarding passes back into my bra. But I do not need or appreciate others dictating the speed at which we travel or the directness with which we move from Point A to Point B. I say, get a job with the TSA if you want to do that.

But I also realized how strange our travel has become. I realized, standing in the Starbucks line with a fidgeting Mbot and not minding it at all, that the bots and I have become our own little solar system, two little planets revolving at varying speeds and in erratic orbits (that sometimes intersect) around a sun, with one fluffy, oversized moon orbiting each planet and various interplanetay detritus present, asteroids and meteorites in various shapes and form that wreak their own havoc. It is a young solar system, alive with eruptions and quakes–although the sun is gaining mass as it passes through middle age. The whole shebang migrates on an unpredictable course through space, and woe be unto the force that tries to alter that course or the speed at which it progresses.

I realize that we have evolved this way without my realizing it. The universe is expanding, and the space between us and the single, childless travelers and parents who do not fly with their small children–is widening.

Now if I could only stop the expansion of that solar system’s sun….

The Beach, #2: The Nitty Gritty

Surf’s up, sand’s up. Noses and butts, that is.

One thing I enjoy most about reading blogs is being reminded of how many different ways there are of doing things, or feeling things, or thinking about things. It’s like walking down Broadway in New York City–seeing all those people who are all those colors and shapes and wearing all those different styles of clothes and shoes and hair. For me, it’s enormously liberating and each time I do it I feel more comfortable in my own skin.

But it’s easy to forget.

I didn’t think twice about the fact that, when I returned home, I shook a tide’s worth of sand from every shirt, pair of shorts, and set of underpants. I thought nothing of burying my snout in each garment before dropping it into Lake Dreft (well, not the underpants). I grew up vacationing near the north shore of Massachusetts and on the leeward beaches of Maui, and if I could turn that keen sea smell into a room freshener, I’d do a brisk business selling it to myself.

I will be digging sand out of ears for weeks. I do not mind. I see the bots’ faces and wonder why exactly it looks like they’ve been at the beach; they live in Arizona, for god’s sake–what’s the difference in the appearance of that tan and the one you get on the shore, even when you’re not trying for a tan, even when you’re slathered with a healthy dose of UVA/UVB spf 50 sunscreen? I actually put some thought into it last week and realized that it’s due to two factors.

One: the ocean. There’s a reflective glare off the water that sends the sun to the upper inner parts of the cheeks, on either side of your nose, and up under the bridge of my sunglasses. It gets your whole face. Two: we’re exposed this way, from multiple angles, from hours at a time. If we were at home in the desert, we wouldn’t be out in the sun for hours at a time. I will always associate that kind of tan not with melanomas, hyperpigmentation, and the premature onset of looking like a dried apple doll, but with health and laughter. I will always associate a trace of sand in the bathtub with a happy day.

The day after returning home, after I had done the laundry and thrown away the Q-tips, I had a chance to not quite catch up on a few blogs, and was amused by Deni Lyn’s report of her beach vacation, (Diary of a Relectant Mother) in a rental house, with a baby and relatives. I was ridiculously surprised to discover that a surpreme aversion to rental carpet (and the fact that the vacation was actually more work than real life, as any mother who travels with her work I mean children will tell you), (oh, and a genuine liking for our relative-in-laws), was about the only thing we share, as far as opinions of the beach go.

Lyn got supremely peeved at her husband for even taking their weebot onto the sand and dipping him in the waves. “Filthy” is the word she used to describe sand. It’s true that her bot is much younger than mine, and there was a nice clean shady pool nearby, and she pointed out that her bot has years ahead of him to wallow about on the beach. But I couldn’t help but think that mine were rolling around in such filth at eighteen months (and I grieved that it wasn’t earlier)–granted, wearing a rash guard, long shorts, a hat, and enough sunscreen to fill a hollowed-out pineapple.

I don’t care for the crunch of sand between my teeth. But all this time I’ve thought of the ocean as one of the great natural cleansing substances, unless you’re taking a dip off the shore of Tijuana, under the Brooklyn Bridge, or around a BP drill site. I will never begrudge another mother’s pleas for ease and a nonsunburnt bot. And I love Lyn’s writing, and I’d love to share a bottle of wine with her, and I love how different her point of view is. But as for me, I’ll take the surf with my turf, cuz I yam what I yam.

A Letter to the Survivors

I just read my friend, Nancy Sharp’s, blog, Vivid Living. The post was entitled, A Dark Night For Parents. I didn’t know what it referred to. I feel like an idiot. I have been so out of touch, ushering a toddler and a preschooler through airport security, home to Phoenix, into naptime, and around the block, that I hadn’t heard the news. That everyone but I had heard. I even used the word “dead” in my blog post title. So much for keeping current.

My husband is, at the moment, in the bots’ bedroom reading to them while I sit, blindsided by the news I just learned on Nancy’s blog. Her son, a college sophomore, was at a Batman premiere last night. In Denver. Different theater. I have other friends in the area. One I just emailed a “you’re all right, right?” note; the other had left two phone messages that she was okay–but I hadn’t checked my messages.

And here I was this morning on a plane from the beach back home, looking past the face of my two year-old to the mountains ten thousand feet below afraid vaguely of engine trouble, having to use those ridiculous oxygen masks (a hand on my shoulder, “You first, then them,” and I, wondering if I could do that). Not knowing. Husbot didn’t mention it on the drive home. The talk was all about no naps and fleas. I am angry at him, probably undeservedly, for not mentioning it. If I had known, it would have been the first thing I’d have said. Did you hear. Do you know any more…I would have called Nancy.

Instead I wrote about Gbot’s indignant rebellion against wearing his bear suit. Which is the stuff of an easy grin, and it’s real life at its best, at its very, very best.

But this death is real life. This death that springs from shadows in the places we feel safest. And Husbot is calling me to read to the bots. He is tired and fleabitten. My family needs me. But they are safe–I think–for the next five minutes. And I need to share this grief.

Husbot and I have spent the last two weeks taking the weebots to the theater, trying to help Mbot feel more comfortable with the dark, with the noise, with the crowd. They are so young–we will not need to mention the death of twelve people, the injuries of fity-eight more, to them. But I do not think I am overstating when I write that the whisking away of this safe haven will be with us forever.

I cannot help but wonder how many rounds are fired in the actual movie. I am not blaming the film, or the director. Or the gun. All that is the subject for another day.

Today, I extend my deepest sympathies to the loved ones of those who perished in Aurora this morning. Your grief is not mine. It cannot be. But I harbor grief of my own. I do not know your names. But I am crying for you.

The Beach, #1: The Carrot Suit is Dead. Long Live the Carrot Suit!

Back in the days when he was a pliable twenty-month-old pawn to my fashion sense.

We just arrived home from three days at the beach with Grandma, Uncle Marty, and Aunt Alicia’s small tribe of nearly-grownups. I’d assumed I would toss together a few sun-kissed pictures for the blog, but on Day #1, all three USB ports on the netbook failed in an unspectacular but effective way. So I figured I’d be able to throw together a few salty words. But on Days #1, #2, and #3, naptime failed in a really spectacular fashion, and crashed that hope like a surfer whose luck just ran out.

I was also unable to crank up the Cuteness Factor as high as I’d planned, due to opinions like,after Gbot’s dramatic pronouncement, “BRRR! I’m COOLLLD,” accompanied by theatrical hugging of self and shivering: “NOOOO! I don’t want to wear my bear suit! I don’t want to be a bear!”

But I continued to snap it on Gbot’s wiggling body–it fit perfectly this year, and it was so warm and snuggly and CUTE.

Me: “Okay, Bug–it’s not a bear suit. It’s a carrot suit!” (It’s all I could think of. We’d been romping on the beach since daybreak. Naptime was two hours past due.)

“A carrot suit? I don’t want to wear my carrot suit!”

Followed by much pushing of hood and wrenching of snaps and flailing of arms.

The carrot suit, barely worn, is dead. Fortunately, I have a friend who is due in September. A boy.

Long live the carrot suit.


Argument for Staying Culturally Current

“Good job, Mom. You finally got it.”

I have transcribed below the conversation Mbot and I had at the pool at the Y on Saturday. In my defense, I will point out that the background noise consisted of squealing children and splashing water, as we were in the kid zone, with its array of eternally splashy spouts and spigots. (Note: I have transcribed not the conversation as it actually occurred, but as I experienced it.)

Mbot: “Did you ever see octopus pie?”

Me: “Octopus pie? No.”

Mbot: “Octopus cry!”

Me: “Octopus cry?”

Mbot, becoming impatient: “Octopus crime! Did you ever see that movie?”

Me: “Oh! Optimus Prime! From The Transformers! Sorry, Bug, I couldn’t hear you. No. I have not seen the movie.”

Maybe I should, though, so he and I can continue to inhabit the same holodeck.

Revenge of the Fallen Leader Class Optimus Pri...

Class Optimus Prime figure and the truck he transforms into. Definitely not a seafood dish. Picture from Revenge of the Fallen Leader(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Food for Thought

(image via

Aren’t lives apples and stories oranges? What really goes on when you try to change one into the other?

– Joan Wickersham, “The Suicide Index”

I love these words, and I think a lot about their truth in relation to blogging. What is said, what is left unsaid; what is picked up and woven into a narrative; what is discarded because either it does not lend itself to brief essay form, or is too complicated, or too disturbing, or doesn’t fit the blog’s tone, or requires too much analysis?

I had come to think of lives as grapes, stories as wine, and blogs as grape juice. But the apples and oranges cliche–which is so unexpected in this context as to rise above cliche-dom–may be a truer description of the relation of the two. Food for thought.

Maximizing the Cuteness Factor

Gbot displays a high CF at the beach last summer.  (Coordinating color of football a happy coincidence.)

Although I am biologically programmed to accept as a law of the universe–or at least a corallary to The (as yet undiscovered) Unifying Theory–that my offspring are the cutest offspring ever to spring off the geneology charts of anyone, anywhere, in any solar system and in any dimension, there are always things that can make them even cuter.

However, as each of my offspring possesses a Y chromosome–which in the current American social code translates into the dismal fact that 99% of the clothing manufactured for them is navy, brown, grey, or combinations thereof, adorned with unimaginative and often ugly designs involving sports, automobiles, movies that they are not yet old enough to see, or dumb sayings–it is a challenge to maximize their cuteness beyond avoiding the mohawk and keeping the whining to a minimum (vocal output directly affects the Cuteness Factor).

But I am up to the challenge. Thanks to occasional sales at miniBoden, like the one that is going on NOW, my malebots now and again rise above the dull color palettes of mainstream American boy preschooler apparel. I love the bright colors and color combinations: oranges, aquas, yellow, minty green. My sister, who has nearly-nine-year-olds, warns me that my time choosing what they wear will soon be up, and so, today, I choose cute.)

I bring this up because a new sale just started, and we are about to go to the beach again for a few days. I’m thrilled that last year’s cuteness enhancers still fit, and, after probably close to fifty washings, so far, only one zipper in twelve has broken, and then, just the cloth pull tab.) (Some styles have two zippered pockets–yes, overkill, but SO CUTE!) I’m thrilled they fit and have lasted, because some of the cuteness enhancers weren’t on sale. It was the first time I’d ordered there, and here is the trick to shopping at miniBoden if you don’t hit the sale: just buy one thing first. Then, a week later, you will begin to receive catalogs in the mail and fabulous offers online, with anything from 15% to 50% off either a whole order or one item, and maybe free shipping, too.

Mbot upping the CF bar by actually wearing the hood.

And voila, although you, as the mother of another, are calibrated to register your own weebot as orders of magnitude cuter than mine, I can narrow that gap significantly with strategic clothing choices, and you can do the same. Now if only there were a cute shirt with ears that would eliminate the whining, the whole universe would be a cuter place.

Up to a certain age–say, 30, ears always increase the CF, especially if the earbearer is younger than you are. Definitely a maternal trigger. Im not sure they’re still making these one-piece snappy suits, though. (miniBoden towelling hoodies)