Monday, December 20, 2004

The Great Pretender

I saw Star Wars in the theater when it first came out. It was way back in the fourth grade, at a classmate's 9th birthday party. I'd heard about the movie all summer and had seen the characters splashed across countless t-shirts, lunchboxes and posters, so I was brimming with excitement when the time came to experience this phenomenon for myself. By the time the first ten minutes had elapsed, I had to admit the truth to myself . . . I was really, really bored. It just wasn't my type of movie - I've never been into sci-fi or fantasy and I just couldn't follow the story or care much about the problems of the various droids, ewoks, and intergalactic characters who populated the film.

But somehow I knew, instinctively, that I should not share my opinion with the other kids in my group. Everyone loved Star Wars - it was practically un-American not to! So when the movie was over I joined in with enthusiastic praise, swooning over the dreaminess of Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker and vowing to see it again a dozen more times (in fact I have never seen it since).

That was the first time I remember faking it to fit in with the crowd, but it certainly wasn't the last. All through school I did so in a strenuous attempt to shoehorn myself into the often ill-fitting mold of a typical, cookie-cutter suburban schoolgirl. I festooned my room with pictures of horses, and then with posters of Ricky Schroeder and Ralph Macchio because that was what my friends did. I begged my parents for albums by Kool & the Gang and Blondie since I knew it was more acceptable that admitting "I'm not really into the whole pop music thing - I'd rather play my dad's old folk records from the 50s and 60s. Guantanamera, anyone?" I pretended to care deeply about Luke & Laura's wedding or who shot J.R., though I'd never seen an episode of General Hospital or Dallas in my life.

In high school the big thing to do was to hang out after class at Fro-gurt, a frozen yogurt joint in the shopping center across the street from campus. I was there several days a week, spending all of my meager babysitting cash despite the indisputable fact that I detest frozen yogurt. To me it always tastes bland and chalky no matter how desperately you try to mask it with fruit and candy toppings. Looking back it seems so silly, when I could have just said "How about we go for ice cream this time?" or "I'll come along, but I'll just have a cup of coffee." But that would have involved going out on a limb and being different, a concept which terrified me. I just wanted to blend in and eat my yogurt, no matter how vile I found it.

Luckily, the university I attended had a very groovy, crunchy granola ethos with a big emphasis on "doing your own thing." Very few people joined sororities or paid much attention to things like clothes with designer labels - we were hundreds of miles away from the nearest upscale department store, so people who cared about such things tended to stay far away from our part of the state. It was a perfect fit for me, and for the first time I was at the center, rather than the fringes, of a popular, lively group of friends. In theory it was great to be included in the college social scene and get invited out every weekend. But this, too, had its downside. Unfortunately, I quickly found that I hated crowds, loud drunk people, blaring music, and alcohol - the very staples of collegiate social life.

I just could not see the appeal; I was obviously on a different wavelength than the rest of the crowd. My friends and I would walk into a bar, and I'd think, oh good, it's quiet and not too crowded in here, we can all sit by the fire and have a nice conversation. Meanwhile everyone else would be crying "My god, this place is DEAD - let's get out of here!" Apparently the goal was to find a bar that was practically deafening, thick with smoke, and so jam-packed you could barely squeeze your way in. Then, after you waited forever for your drink, you stood shoved into a corner and shouted at each other over the music. And I put myself through this, week after week, because - yet again - it was what college students did. What they didn't do was say "Parties, shmarties - I think I'll just stay home, make some hot cocoa, and curl up with the ol' Sunday Times puzzle!"

Words cannot describe how much I love being in my thirties, settled down with a family and free from the peer pressures that dominated my youth. I have completely embraced my inner geek, spending as much free time as I can doing crosswords, reading, watching documentaries and listening to the Classic Cabaret channel on AccuRadio to my heart's content. In some ways I have gone to the opposite extreme, firmly planting my feet and refusing to even try to do the accepted thing.

For example, my boss at work is a huge, huge sports fan. For years I have watched with detached amusement as co-workers have tried to curry favor by studying the latest sports headlines and attempting to discuss them with her. I don't participate in this. Rather, I have purposely become as grossly ignorant as possible on the subject. I won't even look at the sports page for fear I might actually learn which teams are competing in the Superbowl. Moreover, I deny any knowledge of the event - when the subject arises at work I just blink quizically and say "Superbowl . . . is that some sort of contest? Like the National Scrabble Championship?"

People probably think I am a complete weirdo . . . and that's just fine with me. At the very least, it means no one will be trying to drag me to see Episode III - Revenge of the Sith!

Friday, December 10, 2004

Adenoids, We Hardly Knew Ye

Last month, after we had endured 3 full months of Bug's constantly running nose and watering eyes, and were sick to death of wiping up endless amounts of snot and dragging him to the doctor every other week for recurring ear infections, it seemed like a good idea to follow the ENT's suggestion to have his adenoids removed.

Yesterday, while he cheerfully bounded around the hospital waiting room at the ungodly hour of 6:00 am, charming all the nurses and playing with his new Boobah doll (a Chanukah present from the night before), it seemed like a terrible idea. It was almost unbearable to watch him, so happy and healthy and feeling great, and to know that in an hour he would be sore, groggy and unable to eat without pain. What's the point of that? He's fine! I changed my mind! Let's go home!

Knowing how hard this would be on me, I mentally walked myself through the whole process a hundred times beforehand. I knew the toughest part would be right before the procedure, watching the doctor wheel him away on the stretcher while I waited helplessly behind. In a way, what actually happened was even harder - Bug was so excited to be in this new place with all the shiny instruments and bright lights that he couldn't be still long enough to sit down on the gurney. Armed with his blanket and a Spongebob toy that he swiped from the waiting area, he eagerly grabbed the doctor's hand and practically skipped off to surgery, having no idea what was ahead of him. He's so trusting! Of course it would never occur to him that this nice man who gave him Spiderman stickers and let him play with the stethoscope was planning to knock him out with nitrous oxide, stick a breathing tube in his nose, and cauterize part of his throat.

The surgery seemed to last forever, but in reality it must have been over rather quickly since I barely had time to finish the outdated issue of Parents magazine I was reading. (As a side note, reading the refreshingly mainstream Parents was such a relief after a whole year of suffering through my subscription to hippy-dippy Mothering, which always made me feel paranoid and guilty because I don't homeschool or send my kids to experimental Waldorf centers or grow all their food myself in an organic vegetable garden. I must not be as groovy as I thought, because I related much more to Parents, which I'd always assumed was way too "Pottery Barn Mom" for my taste. I think I will sign up for a free trial subscription).

When I brought Bug home, he was tired, cranky, and starving. The first few bites of mashed pears must have stung horribly, for he immediately winced sharply and burst into tears. The tears quickly turned to rage, and he stormed about the house howling and crying and angrily knocking the pillows off the couches, the books off the bookcase, and his toys off the shelf. He marched to his bedroom and flung all his stuffed animals across the room, then tried to hurl his soccer ball at the window.

I felt awful. I couldn't calm him down or comfort him - he wouldn't let me hold him or even get near him. He'll probably never trust me again, I worried, knowing that I was the orchestrator of all this misery. He picked up his Leapstart Learning table, lifted it as high as he could, and sent it crashing to the floor. While I grabbed Bee and whisked her away to safety, he picked up his Elmo cell phone, considered it for a moment . . . and then put it to his ear.

"Hey-yo?" he asked calmly.

"Hi Bug!" I said, holding up my pretend telephone. "Can you come over and play?"

"No! Bye!" he shouted, slamming down the phone and rolling on the floor with laughter.

Thank God for short attention spans.

In a few hours he had gone through all the ice cream, popsicles and pudding I had accumulated for his convalescence, and was happily snacking on chicken strips and nachos with cheese. The Tylenol with codeine the doctor prescribed sits unused in the medicine cabinet.

It's probably just as well. Another day like that, and I'll be needing it myself.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Here Comes Santa Claus

Well, it finally happened. As we made our way towards the front doors of Safeway, Bug took one look at the fully costumed Salvation Army bell-ringer and happily shouted "Look mommy - it's Santa Claus!" In a way I was sort of horrified. All his young life I have immersed him in Jewish culture: JCC summer camp, Torah for Tots, Friday night services, a traditional Shabbat dinner every week, the shema each night before bed - and STILL he lights up like a . . . . well, like a Christmas tree at the sight of the man in the red suit.

And why shouldn't he? Santa comes to his school each year, bringing presents and cookies and laughter and a much-needed break from the daily routine of speech and physical therapy. Bug has no clue that this annual ritual has any religious significance - in fact, we always laugh at his blasé attitude towards Santa's classroom visits in contrast to the other kids. Filled with stories about this omnipotent figure who keeps detailed notes about their transgressions, most of the students spend the entire time terrified and crying in the corner. Then there's Bug, the only Jewish kid, who blithely goes through the motions of sitting on the generous stranger's lap for a second, eagerly grabs a toy from the bag, and then proceeds to ignore his existence for the rest of the afternoon.

The teacher always gives us the option of having Bug sit out any overtly Christmas-related activities, but what's the point? It seems cruel to deprive him of the gifts and food and fun, especially since he wouldn't understand why he was missing out. So it's not so surprising, or such a big deal, that he recognizes Santa when he see him - after all, I can't keep my kids shielded from the all-encompassing Christmas behemoth forever. But I know it is a short step from waving to Santa at a shopping mall to asking why Santa doesn't come to our house and why we don't have a twinkling tree in our living room.

It's hard to know exactly how to handle the whole Christmas issue with the kids. As an adult, I am very secure in my Jewish identity; so much so that I feel free to enjoy various yuletide trappings - the parties, the mulled cider, the bright blinking lawn decorations around the neighborhood - without feeling guilty or excluded. But I remember as a child feeling so conflicted during the holiday season. All around me were candy canes and tinsel and elaborate store window displays, snowflakes and reindeer and joyful carolers - but it was all meant for other people, not for me. I knew we weren't supposed to envy our Gentile neighbors, but of course I did! The other kids at school were forever describing the towering piles of presents awaiting them, making lists for Santa, and spending art class creating festive, glittery tree ornaments while I sat alone at my desk tracing a menorah stencil over and over.

Many parents combat this by making a really big deal out of Chanukah, a Jewish holiday that happens to occur within the same basic time frame. In theory I have no problem with elevating the status of the Festival of Lights, a beautiful celebration of religious freedom, victory against great odds, faith and miracles. But I hate to cheapen the holiday by attempting to tart it up into a "faux Christmas." For one thing, it is always going to suffer in comparison. It is a small, relatively minor holiday, and when you put it up against the glitz and glamour of Christmas it comes off looking kind of limp and pathetic - sort of like when your mom tries to pass off a carob cookie as being "just as good" as a Chips Ahoy.

Also, I really don't want to see Chanukah become all about the gifts and external trappings, leeched of any of its deeper meanings. One thing that I love about this time of year is that I am not caught up in a frenzy of buying and spending and overscheduling and stress. Instead I get to enjoy cozy evenings at home with my family, lighting candles, feasting on delicious hot latkes and chunky homemade applesauce with lots of cinnamon and whirling around the living room to my Reggae Chanukah CD. Maybe it is unrealistic to think that I can get the kids excited about Chanukah without appealing to their naturally acquisitive natures. But it is clear that I need to make a huge effort, starting this year, to think of creative ways to make the holiday meaningful and special for them . . . or risk being eclipsed by jolly old St. Nick.