Friday, July 20, 2007

Birthday fallout

You know your mothering skills have reached a new low when you make your son cry on his birthday. I know, I’m a lout. I got home last night from class to discover that instead of the highly practical bike we had discussed, McKay chose to buy a hundred dollars’ worth of toys for his present. My immediate response when greeted with this news – to yell “Are you kidding me?!!!” – was probably not the best way to handle things, which I say in retrospect because it made McKay cry although it was truly instinctual and I’d like to think I’m not accountable for things I say while in a state of total shell shock. I apologized to McKay for getting upset and reminded him (and myself) that it was his birthday and I hoped he would have lots of fun with his new toys, which by the way, include:

1) A remote control backhoe as big as a dog with realistic construction noises and NO (believe me I’ve looked) volume control. The only thing we need less than more toys in our home is more noise.

2) A remote control airplane that within 1 hour of arriving in our home was already stuck so far up in a pine tree it required professional extraction with a 15-foot extension ladder and a 6-foot father bearing a 7-foot piece of wood trim. This morning, against my advice, which was (and I quote): “let’s all wait until Nora wakes up and go to the park to fly it,” the boys took the plane out for a spin in the cul-de-sac and within 2 minutes had lost it somewhere over the neighbors’ roofs. A rescue expedition ensued which, to everyone’s great relief, recovered the plane. The one redeeming outcome of this incident was that when they returned home, Ethan in his best maternal voice, philosophized: “Now what have we all learned from this experience?” and the boys agreed: “Listen to Mom. She’s always right.” I think the gloat mileage alone is worth the 100 bucks.

3) (Heaven help us!) A skateboard. I can see the medical bills accumulating already.

Deep breaths, Julie. Repeat after me: it’s his birthday….it’s his birthday…it’s his birthday.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Games kids play

It’s past 10 pm and I figure I should get my kids to bed but they are still outside playing night games with a dozen other kids and it warms my heart to no end to hear them out there laughing and running and hiding in my neighbor’s bushes and frightening their cats so I think I’ll postpone my impending pronouncement of Bed Time for a few more minutes. I don’t really relish being the party pooper.

We live on the edge of a cul-de-sac full of incredibly tolerant people with great grassy front yards at the end of a connecting street full of parents with flexible (read non-existent) summer curfews. The result is that two or three times a week, kids spontaneously congregate outside our house to play night games. I’m not sure how they know when and where to meet. Do they share some kind of inborn night games homing instinct? Did they see a signal in the sky? Maybe Hermione has given them all coins prepared with some kind of Protean Charm. I know not what. But I watch them gather and mill about and then deliberate which game to play and form a circle in the road with their right feet in the center “… mother said to pick the very best one and you are IT” and then they’re scattering in all directions like crows in a wheat field, my oldest son grabbing onto the hand of his little brother (the one who just a few hours ago was the world’s biggest pest!) to help him run faster and my faith in today’s youth is restored and I’m entirely willing to let them stay up way past their bedtime or at least until someone suffers road rash whichever comes first.

Things that have not changed since I was a kid:
1) Night games include Ghosts in the Graveyard, Hide and Seek, Capture the Flag, Kick the Can, and Sardines.
2) It’s physically impossible and besides that immoral to go to bed before 10pm in the summer.
3) It still sucks to be “it” but if, when you’re tagged, you suddenly remember that it’s way past your bedtime and you have to go home, the other kids will threaten not to let you play next time.

Things that have changed since I was a kid:
1) When we needed to stop the game for an injury or potty break, we yelled “All-ee all-ee in-come free.” Don’t ask me why. And don’t ask why I always thought it was about some kid named Ollie and only just this year discovered it made more sense to read it All-ee as in everyone, perhaps derived from the old English All’ye. Anyway, the kids now yell “PAUSE.” I suppose this reflects the pervasive influence of videos and DVDs which are also paused. I guess if you say you’re going to play Kick the Can, it’s only logical that you would also be able to pause Kick the Can. I wonder if it’s also possible to rewind, fast-forward and listen to the director’s commentary on the game.
2) I keep a close eye on my kids while they’re out playing, even if they don’t realize it. When I was young, we were free to wander the orchards around our home and play anywhere as long as we checked in once in a while with the folks: every couple of days or so (just kidding, Mom). Truly, times have changed and not for the better in this case.
3) I had to explain to my kids what sardines were. They are deeply deprived.

Times have also changed a bit since Brueghel painted this scene of children at play. It’s basically a catalog of all the games popular in his day; over 80 specific ones have been identified by name. I think it’s interesting that we are viewing the scene from above, from the perspective of an adult (maybe up in a building?) who smiles and thinks “ah, how picturesque it all is” rather than from the child’s point of view, on the street-level angle where boys jump over each other’s backs and girls with scarves tied around their faces play Blind Man’s Bluff. We certainly never thought our night games were art-worthy. We were too busy playing them to think beyond how we could avoid major eye injuries while crowding 12 people into a great hiding spot in the prickly juniper bushes.

My brilliant brother Steve produces video games for a living (and thus walks on water as far as my kids are concerned) so I apologize in advance for the next little bit, but I thought this link was funny. Be sure to hover your mouse over the picture to see the modern update and click on the figure to see what he’s holding. Sorry Steve, but you already know how I feel about video games and why we don’t own them which is partly why watching all the neighborhood kids play night games has me so delighted. As long as they’re chasing each other around, no one can mock my sons for living so far behind the times.

Monday, July 09, 2007

choirs, heavenly and earthly

In one section of Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, a choir of women cluster next to the throne of God and sing their saintly little hearts out. What I love about these women is the intense looks of concentration on their faces: eyebrows raised, foreheads creased, and jaws dropped low enough to create double chins and neck folds. I have heard three different theories for the singers' facial expressions, each from credible sources. You decide.

1) From a musicologist: each singer represents a different pitch in a particular medieval scale, best reached by certain facial contractions.

2) From me (based on my own experience in choirs): everyone in the group – with the exception of the snooty blond in profile at the top – is singing a B. She, with all the confidence and volume of a woman certain she is right while everyone else is wrong, is singing a B FLAT. Thus the sour expressions.

3) From my son Ethan: “They look like they’re all suffering from either constipation or diarrhea.”

I chose this painting to commemorate my unexpected encounter this weekend with one of my former identities: Julie the Choir Geek. After much arm-twisting from various friends, I agreed at the last minute to participate in a choir reunion concert at my old high school on Saturday night. My big regret was not attending all of the pre-concert rehearsals. Had I done so, perhaps I could have avoided the embarrassment of not knowing my part for a majority of the songs, but if there’s anything I learned from my years of choir participation it’s how to “fake it till you make it,” a time-honored coping skill that goes back as far as there have been choirs. (In fact, in the excavation of the music hall at Pompeii, archaeologists discovered bundles of papyrus with rows of notes followed by the Latin inscription fakatum ad facerem. I also predict that someday a musicologist will argue that even in van Eyck’s celestial choir, as determined by a careful study of the neck and mouth musculature and the lung expansions of each woman, only two of them are actually singing. The rest are mouthing the words and trying their best to look good.)

Fortunately, at the reunion concert, we sang a few old songs I knew. I could sing the alto part to the Battle Hymn of the Republic in my sleep and sometimes do. Never mind the fact that on Saturday I was singing alto in the middle of the soprano section because I wanted to stand with my friends. I tried to blend as best I could. I’m a good blender.

Looking back, I think my high school choir experience qualifies as one of the major miracles in my life. I still don’t know how I got there. I love music and sang in our church choir growing up, but I seriously don’t have a beautiful voice. And I’m not just saying that in hopes of being contradicted (like when I used to say “I’m so fat. I’m a horkin’ hippo!” all through adolescence when I was maybe 5 pounds over my ideal weight). When I say I don’t have a beautiful voice, I mean honestly I have a very average voice, no vibrato, no bright tone, no solo potential whatsoever. But I’m a good blender and once I learn the alto part, I make a decent contribution to a choir in a “hope nobody can actually HEAR me, but I’m going to sing all the right notes” kind of way, which is the only explanation I have for the fact that just before my senior year, I was selected to sing in both the A’capella choir and the elite Show and Chamber choir.

I spent the year questioning my right to be in either choir, especially Show and Chamber which was made up of the 19 best singers in the school, plus me. But I also spent the year singing gorgeous music and performing in front of crowds and making some of the best friends of my life. These were true friends who never once made me feel like I didn’t belong. Friends who could stack eight Oreos in their mouths (okay, so that was just Rick, but we all aspired to his greatness). Friends who never tired of telling me I in no way resembled a horkin’ hippo, despite my protests to the contrary. Friends whose idea of a good time was sluffing English in the back office of the choir room where we engaged in daily group naps relaxation therapy. Friends with whom I listened to the soundtrack of Chess so many times we had it completely memorized. Friends who recreated said soundtrack, complete with Russian and British accents where appropriate, at the top of our lungs in the halls, in the parking lot, and in the booths at Hamburger World, without the slightest hint of shame. Friends who bonded so closely in that year that several ended up married to each other (6 out of 20 actually). Friends who still get emotional when we talk about Danny, a member of our choir who died riding his motorcycle to his college graduation ceremony. Friends who sang with such beauty that on Saturday, when we got to a certain line in "Go ye now in peace" – a song we sang together at the end of every concert – I had to mouth the words, not because I didn't know that part but because I was so touched by the memories...

Know that the God who sent his son
to die that we might live
will never leave you lost and alone
in his beloved world

Somehow– call it luck, call it a fluke, call it an act of God (and I choose to think the latter)– I sure won the choir lottery and the friend lottery at the same time. I’m not sure how it happened but 20 years later I’m still grateful.

Monday, July 02, 2007

a convenient virus sometimes lingers

You know how when your sleep is interrupted several times in the night by a crying baby you start having really weird dreams? That’s what I had last night (both the crying baby and the dreams). The worst one: our class reunion was held in a giant swimming pool. Ha! Unless it were also being held on a moonless night coinciding with a total power outage I can’t imagine myself attending that little gathering. Talk about a nightmare. Because you know, flat hair. Ew.

Nora has some kind of virus that makes her really hot and really cranky. Poor thing. I think it’s the same virus that afflicted Gabie for about 2 days last week. He complained of a headache and was uncharacteristically lethargic for a while. In the middle of the night on Tuesday (I was up finalizing my Spring grades), I heard strange noises coming from his room. I checked in on him and he was in there laughing hysterically with his eyes wide open. “Gabie are you OK?” I ask, a little freaked out by the look on his face. “Yeah. I’m just watching a movie in my head,” he says.

I got him a drink and rubbed his head, running my fingers through his hair as he closed his eyes. Nodding back off to sleep he mumbled, “Knock that off Mom, you’re messing up the road.”

Thankfully, Gabie (and I hope the various roads and movies in his head) have made a full recovery. But he’s still convinced he has a virus, or at least the remains of one still in his system, because it makes a great conversation tool. He’s been telling everyone who will listen about it.

"I have a virus," he brags to his grandma and grandpa.

"I have a virus," he yells at the mailman.

"Did you know I have a virus?" he asks the guy behind us at Target, who smiles nervously and takes a noticeable step backwards.

“But Mom, I had to give that little kick to McKay because I’m sick and I can’t help it. A virus attacked my niceness system.”

“Sorry I can’t empty the silverware from the dishwasher because my virus won’t let me.” (He says this one while holding his arm tenderly, the old war wound acting up.)

My son is channeling Danny Kaye.