Oral Hygiene Queen

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Location: Midwest, United States

I floss daily, brush after every meal, and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries.

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Thursday, November 30, 2006

I scream, you scream, we all scream for… Wait, what the hell are we all screaming for?

I have an easy kid. An “easy” kid. Every parent knows that no kid is easy all the time. And sometimes I think that having an easy kid makes it harder to deal with the times that my kid is a holy terror. But maybe I’m just full of shit, because I don’t have a kid who’s challenging most of the time, so I just don’t know.

Anyway, my kid. He was an easy baby, and he’s always been a relatively mellow, even-keeled child. You can take him to a restaurant. You can take him shopping. He's a champ on an all-day drive. Most days, he’ll sit patiently through a wedding ceremony or a bossa nova concert. He’s never been tantrum-prone. We made it through two and thought Hm, that wasn’t so terrible! We’ve made it through most of three with only the occasional wild-eyed, full-tilt fit. As he nears four, he’s gotten more willful, and his tantrum rate has increased slightly. Still, more often than not I’m able to be patient with him even when he’s wigging out. And when I run out of patience, I’m as likely to glaze over and go slightly comatose as I am to grab his arm and start hissing through gritted teeth (though I’m certainly capable of that, too).

In the last couple of weeks, though, O. has added something to his tantrum routine that eats through all my stored-up patience in three seconds flat. He’s started screaming.

I can handle crying. I can handle rolling around on the floor. I can even handle kicking legs and flailing arms, in small doses. But this screaming. It makes me insane, immediately. I clench my teeth, my eyes pop out of my head, and I start making the international symbolic gesture for parent-at-wit’s-end (for the uninitiated, that’s pulling the hair out by the roots). And after a few excruciating moments, I start screaming ‘til my own throat is sore: “Stop screaming! STOP screaming! Stopscreaming stopscreaming stopscreaming!

Last night I found myself with a soaking wet, recently bathed O. on my lap - he was screaming, and I had my hand clamped over his mouth. I knew I needed some help.

How do you get a child to stop screaming? I went to an expert, pulling a dusty copy of Dr. William Sears’s The Discipline Book off the hallway bookshelf. It hadn’t been touched since O. was just under two and we decided to try out that legendary move of humane parenting, the Time Out. On Sears’s advice, we began giving him age-appropriate time outs. And everything has gone pretty well since then. Until the screaming started.

What does Dr. Sears advise us to do with a screaming child? Surprisingly, neither “scream back at the child” nor “clamp a hand over the screaming child’s mouth” appear in this section of The Discipline Book. Hm. Odd.

Anyway, what Sears does say: 1. Don’t take it personally. [Does getting irrationally angry and yelling at the top of my lungs count as taking it personally? I’ll have to work on that one.] 2. Don’t give in. [Check. I’m way too stubborn to even consider that.] 3. Make a rule that the child is not allowed to scream inside the house.

Okay, hold on. A rule? Sears, my good man, are you joking, or just stupid? My child is screaming as the culminating salvo of a totally irrational, possessed-by-Satan’s-dark-forces, force of nature fit. What do you want me to do, threaten to give him a time out? (Assuming he's not already in a time out, which he usually is by the time the screaming starts.) How would you like me to convey this information? Perhaps by screaming at the top of my lungs: “HONEY REMEMBER NO SCREAMING IN THE HOUSE IF YOU DON’T STOP SCREAMING SWEETIE MAMA’S GOING TO GIVE YOU A TIME OUT NOW STOP FUCKING SCREAMING!!!”? I’m a little confused.

So that’s the Sears advice. Now, I know Dr. Sears is a controversial figure and there are essays out there by smart, educated mothers entitled “Why I Hate That Co-Sleeping Nazi Dr. Sears.” But, generally, I like him more than not. I believe in attachment parenting, and it’s always worked for us. But this advice on screaming? It’s just not adequate. To be honest, Bill, I was hoping for some sort of magic trick to stop the screaming, not to be advised to deal with it, and stay and listen. (Oh, yeah: that’s the other bit of advice he offered: Don’t leave the child to scream alone. Come on! If I can’t get him to stop, can’t I at least go in the next room and listen to Enya on my iPod? Mmmm… Enya…)

So, anyway, if you have any advice on how to talk children out of the habit of screaming, or how to stop them once they start screaming, or how to cope if you can’t get them to stop, I’m all ears. And those ears are ringing, so speak up.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Thanks, Thanksgiving!

Damned if I didn't have a good Thanksgiving after all. Maybe all you need to do to improve an ambivalent family dynamic is complain about it at length on the world wide web? Probably not, but it sort of feels like it. I left for my aunt's house feeling a little guilty for writing about my dread of Thanksgiving, and then found that the most potentially dreadful aspects of it turned out pretty cool.

It's hard to even describe how things were different, and better. Everyone seemed more relaxed, more themselves. Both my aunts are lovely, good hearted people, and like most people in my family, they also have a bit of salt in them. But in recent years, there's been an emphasis on positivity at all cost. Maybe because our family has weathered so much loss, they feel a need to keep their eyes on what's happy and harmless. But that kind of positive focus to the exclusion of what is real doesn't seem to actually make things brighter, just more strained. It feels like my beloved aunts aren't being themselves, and I feel like I can't fully be myself. A strenuous focus on pure positivity also kills anything resembling true humor. And easy, plentiful laughter, sometimes of a rather inappropriate nature, has always been one of my favorite aspects of my family.

This Thanksgiving everything seemed more relaxed, more real. I can't pinpoint what might account for that. Maybe enough time has passed that we're all beyond the deep grieving stage for our lost loved ones, that Aunt Gee is coming to see how lucky she is that her terrible husband left her, that it's seeming less purely wrong that my dad isn't part of the holiday anymore. Maybe the fact that my other aunt's husband was in Iowa with his sister's family made both my aunts less worried about pleasing a hard-to-please dude and enabled them to loosen up a bit. Whatever the reason, it was wonderful to enjoy the holiday, to have some real conversations with people I love and with whom I share a precious history, to spend hours on end playing the obscure German card game that no one outside my family seems to know about.

Although the carnival of artificial smells was definitely in effect, I noticed there was only one air-freshener tower machine in the common area (as opposed to three last year). The small army of televisions was also relatively quiet this year – there was usually only one on at a given time, and none on during the holiday feast. And most of the time a TV was on, it was playing one of the old home movies that my cousin dug out of a closet, which we haven’t watched in years, and which brought the presence of my departed grandma, grandpa, and aunt into the mix. Even though there were moments when the images onscreen made us all momentarily sad, it was nice to watch. It reminded us how goofy, slothful, and tight we have always been as a clan. This was certainly the most slothful and the most fun Thanksgiving we’ve had in a long time, and to me it felt tighter and more right than it has in years. So I think we’re on the right track.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Things I’m Dreading, part II

I've actually been dreading writing this post because it centers on something so sadly ambivalent for me. But the truth is I have been dreading Thanksgiving.

This is especially sad because Thanksgiving used to be my favorite holiday. My extended family on my dad's side has always been close, and Thanksgiving was the one time when we would all get together, without fail. My grandma, my grandpa, my dad and I, and my dad's three sisters and their families would all gather at my Aunt Gee's house and have a big ol' feast. It was warm, relaxed, and festive without being fussy or stressful. We ate whenever the enormous spread came together, usually around six or seven. We'd hang out late into the evening, talking, joking, and playing cards. Inevitably Aunt Gee would end up sprawled on the couch with her pants undone, an unofficial Thanksgiving tradition. It was this way ever since I could remember, through college and into my grad school years.

In the last ten years or so, a lot has changed. My dad's youngest sister died after a brief, ravaging illness, leaving behind a young son with cerebral palsy and a husband ill-equipped to be a single parent, and leaving an aching hole in the family. Aunt Gee's husband split, and my dad managed to estrange himself from everyone but my grandma. Then my grandpa began to decline, and after he died my grandma hung on for less than a year.

All of these losses have changed the family dynamic, needless to say. Loss can bring families together, but it can also create or exacerbate tensions. My grandparents were always the core of our family, and the younger generations were bound together by our devotion to them. Now that they're gone, it can be tricky to negotiate our mutual expectations and responsibilities. Despite these complexities, I still value the time I spend with my two remaining aunts and my cousins. But something else has made Thanksgiving increasingly hard for me, something that seems small in comparison to all the changes I've mentioned. My Aunt Gee moved, and I'm just not comfortable in her new house.

Maybe it's partly because our family was vibrant and intact in her old house, and I associate her new house with the diminished version of us. But I know it's much more than that. Her old house was near the historic downtown of her small riverfront city, a cool, funky stone house, situated on a beautiful hill with a dozen mature oak trees in the front yard. It had character, and a wealth of memories from the many days and nights I spent there throughout my childhood. Her new house is a big suburban palace in a recently built housing development. The back yard borders a golf course. It's luxurious, but generic. It feels cold to me.

And for some reason, since she and her family moved there, the atmosphere of her home has gotten less warm and relaxing, becoming distressing in a variety of ways. There are six televisions in this house. Six. One in nearly every room of the house, they outnumber the people two to one, and there are always several on. I often walk into an uninhabited room to find a television blaring (or waiting in vain for an absent gamer to return). And although this house is big and well appointed, sound travels like crazy, so that you can always hear at least one of the televisions playing.

There is also a carnival of artificial smells going on at all times. There are numerous battery-operated air-freshener towers, which spray a shot of aerosol perfume into the air at regular intervals. There are also plug-in air fresheners scattered about. "Unscented" is the scent of choice at my house, and this aggressive collection of smells makes me crazy.

I love my aunt. She's been like a second mother to me all my life, and I've watched her kids grow up. They are good people, and I still like spending time with them, but I find that I enjoy being with them much more when they visit us than when we're at their house. And for some reason, Thanksgiving is the hardest time, because the contrast is so great with what used to be. Since it's been held at my aunt's new house, the Thanksgiving meal has gotten earlier and earlier in the day, and less and less relaxed and fun. It's starting to feel obligatory, and that just sucks.

I wish I could end on an optimistic note. I hang onto a hope that Thanksgiving will morph into something new and better for my family. The holiday has a lot of historical significance for me, and I do want to spend it with these people I love and actually enjoy it. I want O. to think of Thanksgiving as the cool and special holiday I always saw it as, and I want my Old Man to look forward to spending it with my family.

But now it's time to pack up the car and head up to make the best of it this year.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Lessons of Opryland

I’m back from Nashville. I definitely missed O, but I kept busy enough – between conference-related events, self-indulgent solitary activities in my room, and walking the miles and miles of freakiness that is the Opryland Hotel – that I didn’t have much time to dwell on it. Here, in brief, are a few key things I discovered:

1. No Child Left Behind is even more criminally corrupt than I realized. Because the public school where I teach is a “lab” school, we are spared from complying with this terrible law, which is Orwellian in both its logic and its name. The conference was a teachers’ conference, and so I heard horror stories from teachers who have been stifled, overburdened, and underfunded as a result of NCLB, and I attended an excellent presentation on ways to resist the law (which is up for reauthorization this year). I also caught an interesting panel on using blogging in the English classroom. Hmm…

2. The Opryland Hotel is a disorienting fever dream, a bizarre combination of mall, amusement park (sans rides), hotel, and hothouse, and I hope I never have to stay there again. Not one, but three lakes, waterfalls, a dizzying array of exotic plants in numbers that boggle the mind, little restaurants and gift shops every time you turn around, and lots of life-sized stuffed animals hanging from the ceiling playing various instruments (and for some reason dressed in Elizabethan capes and robes). My room was spacious and tasteful, but the numerous“water feature” areas were a riot of sensory overload, and the fucking place is so huge and circuitous, with numerous bridges and wooded pathways (all indoors, remember), that I got lost twice.

3. The Grand Ole Opry, on the other hand, rocks! My colleagues and I got tickets because, hell, we were in Nashville – why not? But I was a little ambivalent. I love the Carter family, Bob Wills, Johnny and June, Hank, Loretta, and Patsy Cline, but I assumed the Opry would be mostly slick new country stuff. I was so wrong. It was overwhelmingly old-timey, with lots of banjo pickin’, mandolin strummin’, and sweet vocal harmonies. I got to see the lovely, dulcet-voiced Emmylou Harris, and hear the Del McCoury Band do the most rascally-good version of “Nashville Cats” imaginable. The coolest thing about the Opry, though, is how intergenerational it is. When do you get to see a twenty-year-old heart throb in torn jeans share a stage with a wise-cracking eighty-year-old woman in rhinestone slacks? And respect all around. It was very homey and unpretentious, not at all slick. A more wholesome night of entertainment I’ve never had. And when the cute-as-all-hell Opry Square Dancers took the stage, I actually got to witness clogging first hand, something I’ve wanted to do ever since I read David Foster Wallace describe clogging as “a kind of intricately synchronized, absolutely kick-ass country tap dance” that’s “erotic in a way that makes MTV look lame” (from DFW’s must-read essay on the Illinois State Fair in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again). Lucky for me, the Opry is currently being held in its original home, the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville, “the Mother Church of Country Music,” so I got to sit in a pew and soak in the venue where Johnny and June reigned for so long. I highly recommend the Grand Ole Opry, especially if you can catch it at the Ryman Auditorium.

Through sheer coincidence, O. has recently started requesting a Patsy Cline Greatest Hits CD as his bedtime music. Tonight, he was still awake when the CD ended, and he came and interrupted this little bout of blogging to ask me to start it over. I sneakily tried to begin it at the third song, which is the start of a run of mellow tunes, and he called out “Hey! ‘I’m Walkin’ in the Moonlight!’” (his name for “Walkin’ After Midnight,” the first track). My bluff called, I started the Patsy CD at the beginning.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Things I’m Dreading, part I

Next week I’m heading to Nashville for a conference. I’m not dreading the conference, which should be interesting. I’m not dreading my presentation, which is a roundtable and thus doesn’t actually require me to write and present a paper. I’m not dreading Nashville (Johnny Cashville); I’m not even daunted by the fact that the conference is being held at Opryland Hotel (where I’ll be sleeping as well as convening). What I am dreading is four days away from my little boy.

I’m leaving shortly after I drop O. off at preschool on Thursday morning, and I won’t be back ‘til mid-afternoon on Sunday. Three nights and nearly four days. When I’ve mentioned my dread of being away from O. for that stretch, people have said “It’ll be good for both of you,” or “It’s time.” And I’m sure we’ll both be fine, but it doesn’t feel like it’s time. I feel a little sick when I think about not seeing him for that long, and him not seeing me that long. It’s not rational in any way. It’s just how I feel.

Partly I just dig my kid. I’ll miss him like I’ll miss my Old Man. And of course I have an irrational belief that O. is inherently safer with me at home, or at least within a several mile radius. But it’s more than that. At three-going-on-four, O. is definitely a kid, but he’s a little kid. He’s still got some of that baby magic. Sometimes after an especially long day at work, I feel the lack of him, of hearing his piping, inimitable voice, feeling his heavy little weight sitting on my lap or his gentle hand in mine. The thought of not having contact with him for that long makes me sad.

The one big thing that offsets this sadness is my knowledge that, with my own room at the Opryland Hotel, I will be spending numerous, glorious hours by myself in the course of these four days, more concentrated time alone than I’ve had since O. was born. I love being alone; I have since I was a teenager. My need to spend a significant amount of time by myself has been a point of negotiation in every romantic relationship I’ve ever had. But you can’t define the terms of your relationship with your very young child. Okay, I’ll nurse you, nurture you, sing to you, change your shitty diapers, etcetera, but I need at least two hours by myself every day, capiche? In becoming O’s mama, I have gladly made myself less the center of my own world, and part of that has involved me setting aside my need for time alone. But I do miss it, and this is one reason that, in addition to dreading next weekend, I’m also looking forward to it.

I had a near-miss last week when one of my less organized colleagues realized that she hadn’t booked a hotel for the conference and sheepishly asked if she could room with me, since she’d discovered that all the nearby hotels were now full. I was a little annoyed, given that I got my shit together and booked my room in May. Mostly though, I was torn between my desire to be nice, suck it up, and do what seemed in the abstract like the right thing and my urge to say “Sorry, sister. Have a nice cab ride from the airport Hilton.” Luckily, my principal, who is making the trip with us, saved my ass by offering to let the disorganized colleague stay in her room. She knew how much I was looking forward to spending some time alone (mostly because I had dropped by her office to kvetch about my dilemma). When I thanked her profusely for her generous and diplomatic offer, she brushed it off: “It’s no big deal. My kid’s away at college. I live by myself. I get to be alone all the time.” Still, I feel like she spared me from spending the long weekend feeling either guilty or resentful.

None of that changes the fact that I will miss my boy very much. But I’m bringing my guitar, and that will help ease my separation blues.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Scariest Day of the Year

I love Hallowe'en, truly I do. I always dress up. (Why, just last year, I attended a Hallowe'en party where my old man, Feral Mom, and I were the only adults in costume. We know how to have fun while looking stupid in a socially acceptable way.) I go to parties, take my kid out trick or treating. I get into it.

But of course, there's a part of me that fears and hates Hallowe'en. It is, after all, the holiday most designed to destroy and decimate the teeth of children everywhere, and many adults too. The thought of my little O. bathing his teeth in sticky, gooey, sugary crap at length during various points throughout the day fills me with unmitigated horror. (Cue chilling music.) Yesterday, however, I managed to stay cool. I know that allowing O. to fully experience normal, fun childhood occasions is more important, ultimately, than protecting his teeth from mouth-rotting garbage every single day of the year. Hey, 363 days a year ain't bad. (We'll talk about Easter later.)

My Old Man helps me keep things in perspective. He loves and values Hallowe'en, and he also balances out my oral hygiene vigilance with a more, shall we say, holistic perspective on sugary candy. With his help, I stayed fairly relaxed yesterday. I only had two major moments of anal retentive Oral-Hygiene-Queen-Mama freakage:

1. O. is eating a lollipop while trick or treating. I am maintaining my cool. It's okay. We'll swish his mouth out with water the minute we get home. The Old Man is helping him down the stairs of a house we've just visited, and O. is having trouble simultaneously holding his treat bag, his lolly, and his daddy's hand. "You can just hold the lollipop in your mouth, sweetie," advises the Old Man, very reasonably. Before I can think it through, though, the image of that little rock of solid sugar just hanging out in O's mouth makes me snap: "What, are you crazy? That's the worst thing you can do!" Seeing the alarmed looks of my husband and son, I stop and pull myself together. "But, then again, if it's just for a minute while he walks down the stairs," (self-conscious chuckle) "I suppose it's fine..."

2. O. has gone to bed. I can't resist. While my kid is still young enough not to have a minutely-detailed mental inventory of his loot, I must purge it of all the really bad stuff. The chocolate can stay, mostly. (After all, chocolate is good for your teeth.) Although the three small boxes of milk duds have to go. The hard candy all goes, except three lollipops that at least have the virtue of not being choking hazards (and not having gum inside - those get chucked). Several other sugary candies touting themselves as "chewy" are discreetly trashed. I feel a little guilty, but mostly triumphant.

And now it's All Saint's Day, a holy day of obligation in the church of my upbringing. I doubt I'll be going to mass. But maybe I'll stop by my local pagan chapel to confess my sins against Hallowe'en.