Thursday, February 24, 2005

Oh L'Amour

In intermediate school I became the lucky beneficiary of my parents' friendship with a senior editor for Bantam Books. They were just launching their Sweet Dreams teen romance line and I received two new freebies in the series each month, which I snarfed up like so much low-grade crack. As a serious, lifelong bibliophile, I knew the books were unoriginal, formulaic crap whose entire plotlines, central conflicts and resolutions could be gleaned by reading the back covers. At the same time, I found their simple and optimistic vision of relationships strongly compelling.

I could relate to the heroines, who were always unremarkable, average plain janes until they were magically transformed by love. And the love came so easily, once they followed the rules: let your hair down from its tight ponytail, freshen up with a little makeup (but not too much!), learn a few basic tidbits about baseball or auto repair or woodworking so you'll have something to talk about with boys (yet be yourself!) and soon you will be swamped with handsome, clean-cut, popular athletes begging for your company (but don't be so dazzled by this that you overlook the shy, cute artist who has been under your nose all along).

The books may have been one-dimensional and predictable, but at the time they were pretty much all I had as a template for teenage dating rituals. Sure, I knew that attracting a boyfriend might take a little more than just strategically dropping my pencil on the floor and batting my eyelashes prettily, a la "The Popularity Plan." But I imagined that once I accomplished this feat, our relationship would play out in the standard manner outlined in the books. We would walk around school holding hands, he would carry my books to class, we would share milkshakes and fries at Foster's Freeze after school, and on special occasions I would receive flowers and heart-shaped boxes of chocolate. And suprisingly, I was right - that is essentially what happened when I started to date, probably because neither my few boyfriends nor I were creative enough to deviate from convention.

The funny thing is, I have little recollection of any of these romantic milestones that seemed so critical to me at the time. I have only faint, blurry memories of school dances or Friday night dates, and I have no idea how my boyfriends and I ever commemerated our birthdays or Valentine's Day. In fact, when I try to recall a single moment of real, starry-eyed, weak-in-the-knees romance from this period, what comes to mind doesn't involve anyone I ever dated, but rather a casual friend that I never saw in "that way."

His name was Chris and he was an affable, nice-looking guy who was much-admired for his prodigious musical talent (and indeed, he is now an accomplished professional orchestra conductor). He was also one of the best dancers at school. In the beginning of my junior year I was invited to a wedding or a party or something - I don't recall what - and I got this idea that I should learn how to waltz beforehand. I asked Chris if he would teach me, and he genially agreed. He came over after school a couple of times, and we sat in the backyard drinking lemonade, and he taught me how to do the basic box step, and that was that.

Several months later I was eating lunch with my friends in the school cafeteria, while a rainstorm pounded on the windows outside. Suddenly Chris flew in through the double doors, wet droplets still clinging to his dark hair, and walked right up to my table.

"Aimless, I've been looking for you - would you like to go outside and waltz in the rain?" He made it sound like such a logical course of action - and was so boyishly enthusiastic - that I readily agreed. So we walked out to the quad, and he put up his umbrella, and he put his arms around me, and we spun around and around while he hummed Strauss' Blue Danube in my ear.

To this day that exhilarating whirl through the raindrops stands as one of the most dashing, impulsive, romantic gestures anyone has ever offered me. Strangely, nothing ever came of it. He never asked me out, I never looked at him through new eyes, and we just continued to chat amiably in the hallways and occasionally study our French homework together during free period.

In a way that is probably for the best. If we had dated, we probably would have just crashed and burned into a sad, bitter heap, the fate of most of my attempts at negotiating the minefield of hormones, miscommunication and insecurity that characterized most of my early relationships. Better I should have that one shining moment to remember in all its untarnished glory.

But sometimes I wonder if maybe, for all of my slavish adherence to the Sweet Dreams worldview, I neglected to follow what may have been the most important lesson of all: don't overlook the shy, cute artist who has been under your nose all along.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Bad Mommy Blues

If this weekend is any indication of what is ahead for Bee, I am in big trouble. It started during Shabbat dinner. As is our weekly tradition, we said the blessing over the wine and then passed around the kiddush cup for everyone to sip. My big mistake was to pass it to Bee first, expecting her to take her customary small taste, wrinkle her nose in disgust, and commence clamoring for the challah. But Friday night was different. After she took a dainty little sample, she tightened her grip on the cup, knocked her head back, and downed the rest of the sweet, sticky Manischewitz in one big chug like a freshman at a frat party. Glassy-eyed and purple-lipped, she spent the remainder of the evening staggering around the living room, giggling madly and planting impromptu sloppy wet kisses on her grandparents.

"Oh god, what have I done?" I moaned.

"Well . . . at least she's a happy drunk," my mom noted helpfully.

"Yeah," I replied "I'm so glad she's not the type to start crying in her beer over all her regrets in life."

Can I be forgiven for hoping that, at the very least, the haze of alcohol would cause her to drift off to sleep a little sooner? Alas, it wasn't to be. It turns out Bee is a regular lampshade-on-the-head party girl. She finally crashed at about 11:00 PM, with wine dribble on her chin and a big smile on her face. I think next week I'll switch to grape juice.

The next day it was pouring rain, so we took the kids to a matinee showing of that fine cinematic masterpiece, Pooh's Heffalump Movie. While it looked even less interesting than the Spongebob movie we saw on Christmas Eve, it was short, appropriate for toddlers, and a lot better than being cooped up in the house all afternoon. Plus it was playing at the new, well-appointed Century 16 theater in Pleasant Hill, meaning that I could enjoy plush stadium seating and fresh-ground Starbucks while we watched. Well, while some of us watched - Bee preferred to wander freely about the theater, marching to the front of the screen to marvel at the 8-foot Piglet and traipsing merrily up and down the aisles pointing out the yellow and blue lights. I didn't mind so much, as she didn't seem to be bothering anybody and I mostly could keep an eye on her from my chair. The only thing was, she kept returning to the second row again and again and I wondered what was going on there - was she stealing someone's candy or drinks?

As I slipped out of my seat to go check on her, the reason became clear. In the second row was a little boy who looked to be about her age. Each time she casually sauntered by his chair, he would rise and follow her to a dark corner where they proceeded to hug and kiss. It's not so much that I mind her making out with a strange boy at the movies - who among us hasn't done that, after all? But I was disturbed to see that the boy did not remove his pacifier beforehand, bringing back unpleasant memories of my boyfriend when I was 15, who continually neglected to take out his retainer before we kissed. I found this rather repulsive - I wanted to kiss him, not the remnants of his lunch from hours before - and refused to let him come near me unless the dental accessory was safely out of sight. I feel that Bee should have the same standards for her partners. Or is kissing with a pacifier the toddler version of safe sex?

At one point, she came back to her seat just long enough to grab the paper cup which had contained my double mocha. It was empty save for the sludge of chocolate syrup on the bottom, her favorite part. As I watched her from afar - strutting around the theater, slurping from her Venti Starbucks cup and getting busy with the kid in the second row - it occured to me that maybe this whole weekend wasn't the best reflection of myself as a parent.

But that would be wrong! See, there is a method to my apparent permissiveness. By letting Bee get her alcohol and sexual experimentation out of the way at this early date, I am assuring that it will be completely out of her system by the time she's, say, five.


Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Personal is Political

I always thought Ayelet Waldman, local author and celebrity darling, seemed like a pretty cool woman. She is married to Pulitzer prize winner Michael Chabon, of Kavalier & Clay fame, writes a fun series of mommy-themed mystery novels, has a gentle, self-deprecating sense of humor in interviews, and contributes a lot of time and money to Bay Area charities including my beloved Habitot. So it made my heart sink this morning to see her essay in Salon where she frankly speaks about terminating her second-trimester fetus, who was diagnosed in utero with a "genetic abnormality" that she never names but which clearly is Down Syndrome.

She trots out all the usual justifications - her family isn't prepared to raise a child with a disability, it will take too much time and attention away from her other kids, she doesn't want her son and daughter to be "burdened" with caring for their brother after her death, etc. Of course I can't help but have a visceral, stomach-twisting reaction to this incredibly privleged, wealthy woman whining that she simply didn't have the wherewithal to take on this challenge. I wish she could log on to my online Down Syndrome support group and meet the dozens of working-class, struggling parents, who often live in far-flung rural outposts with little to no community resources - and who STILL manage to lovingly raise happy, healthy children with and without extra chromosomes. If they can do it than surely Waldman, who lives within shouting distance of several world-class universities and hospitals with top-notch services, in one of the most diversity-friendly cities in the country, could handle it with relative ease.

At least she has the guts to admit in a national magazine that she killed her fetus because he wasn't genetically perfect - she actually uses that term and doesn't try to couch it in euphemism or political correctness. She is only doing what an estimated 90% of women do when faced with the same news. Once a diagnosis of Down Syndrome is confirmed, termination is expected and encouraged - it is those of us who choose to give birth to our imperfect, hopelessly compromised babies who are shunned, or at least treated with utter bewilderment. I can't count how many times people approached me after Bug was born to bluntly ask "Didn't you know? Beforehand?" The tacit implication being, of course, why didn't you get tested like everyone else does, so you could have had an abortion before it was too late?" Parents of disabled kids quickly become well-versed in the language of the unspoken, where niceties like "Special kids are only born to very special families" and "God never gives you more than you can handle" really mean "Thank goodness it's you and not me!"

In this age of ubiquitous prenatal testing, having a child with an easily detectable genetic disorder is seen as an embarassing, awkward gaffe. It just isn't done. And all those times I look around my temple, or the neighborhood, or the community at large and wonder where all the other kids like Bug are - statistically speaking, he shouldn't be the only one around - I realize that in many cases their parents made the same choice Waldman made.

It isn't that I am against choice, far from it. In fact whenever I get into a discussion regarding this issue I feel I must present my long-standing pro-choice credentials, which are impeccable. All through high school and well past college I was an active member of NARAL and Students for Choice, I volunteered for Planned Parenthood, I did clinic defense, I joined protest marches, the whole works. I am still as pro-choice as I ever was. My objection is not to the availablitity of safe, legal abortions, but to the widely accepted notion that kids like Bug are, by their very nature, disposable. To me there is a significant moral difference between terminating an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy versus aborting a kicking, rolling, 4 month old fetus that was actively wanted and planned after discovering that it doesn't live up to your fantasy of a perfect baby.

I never want to see abortion become illegal - but I would love to see an end to the ignorance about Down Syndrome that causes people to see no light at the end of the tunnel, save for termination. It is so discouraging to hear that even Harvard-educated Ayelet Waldman believes those offensive old stereotypes, that kids with DS are a horrible, time-consuming burden with no quality of life and no future. It's a tragic cycle - people (including doctors) keep repeating these same damaging untruths, so more babies are aborted as soon as the diagnosis is made, so as a result there are fewer living, breathing people with Down Syndrome who can challenge those outdated images.

I hope Bug will be one who changes people's minds. In a sense it is behind almost everything I do. When I take him to Sunday School or Shabbat services, or the movies or the mall or the park, I hope people will see my happy, adorable little boy completely participating in his community, surrounded by his very devoted family, and realize that raising a child with Downs is not some oppressive life sentence requring "massive diversion of parental attention" (if anything, it is Bug's chromosomally normal sister, the strong-willed, high-needs Bee, who sometimes strains our parental reserves)! In fact Bug is a perfect fit for our family, brings us an untold amount of joy every day, is growing and learning and progressing at an astounding rate, and - bottom line - has a life worth living and a bright future worth striving for.

I have no doubt that Ayelet Waldman's decision was a wrenching, painful experience - by her own account it caused her nightmares and months of depression. Still, it makes my blood boil to imagine her brave, tearful confession to her congregation at Yom Kippur, which was surely followed by sympathetic hugs and hairpats and congratulations on her honesty and courage. How ironic, when she chose the coward's way out. The truly courageous thing would have been to give her son a chance to live.