Anti-Anxiety Pumpkins

My house felt like this yesterday.

Today started out like it was going to be one of the worst in my parenting history.  My husband was away on a quick overnight trip, and I was home alone with the kids.  I had the brilliant idea of having both kids host a play date yesterday after school, thinking this might alleviate some of the single parenting burden I was carrying for the next 24 hours.  I picked up four children between the ages of 5 and 6 after school and trailed them home as they sped down the street.  When we reached the house a few minutes later, I laid out the ground rules: “The two of you can play together, and the two of you can play together.  At no time are you to be in the same room as the other two, nor are you to go into your sibling’s bedroom.”  They agreed and ran off to play.  Things were good for about a half an hour, so I foolishly thought I could call up a friend.  As soon as we started chatting, my daughter informed me that my son had spit on her friend.  Excellent.  I bid adieu to my friend and went to broker the peace.  I don’t know where this spitting thing has come from, but he’s been doing it all week.  I had a nice chat with my son, one that ended in his tears as he thrashed on the floor so I know it must have been a success, and the play date returned to normal.

As I think I’ve mentioned in this blog before, I’m a little bit OCD.  I decided it would be much easier for me to take the four kids out to the pizza parlor around the corner than have a pizza delivered and have to constantly be yelling, “Use your napkin!” or “You know you’re going to have clean that up, right?”  We walked down, ordered our pizzas, and settled into a nice game of “Name an animal that starts with A…now one that starts with B…”  Thank god for the iPhone, which helped us out when we couldn’t think of Kimodo Dragon on our own.  The photos and tales of venomous saliva helped keep their minds off their appetites, and I’m sure it enticed my son to test the mettle of his own venomous saliva at some point in the near future.

The pizza arrived, we ate, and walked home.  Both kids were picked up, and my kids willingly got into pajamas, brushed their teeth, and settled into bed without protestation.  I felt like the king of the world.  I had conquered four kids easily after a full week of work with barely any tears.  My husband could stay away for days and I’d be singing like Mary Poppins to while away the time.  Before heading to bed myself, I set my alarm early enough to give me enough time to work out on the elliptical in the basement, shower, and prep breakfast before the kids awoke.

When my alarm went off, I felt refreshed and alert.  I decided to stay in bed for a few more minutes, check my email and such.  My son knocked on my door.  He said my daughter needed Poppy.  “Well he’s not here kiddo.  I’ll be down in a minute.”

I took my time getting my workout clothes on, and headed down to check on my daughter.

The scene at my house this morning. Except my daughter’s a girl. And she’s black.

“Don’t be mad Daddy.  It was an accident.”

She only says this when she’s wet the bed.  Awesome.  I pulled back the covers and it looked like someone had let loose a fire hose on her bed.  I could feel my single parent stamina starting to crack.  “Why didn’t you get up and go potty?”  My voice was rising.  My daughter was starting to cower.  This is why she had asked for Poppy.

“I don’t know.”

“I’m just really frustrated honey,” I said through grated teeth.  “I’m not mad at you,” I lied.  I looked at the time.  Two hours.  I could still clean up this mess, work out, shower, and get breakfast cooked before we had to leave the house for soccer.  “Okay, quickly get undressed, and jump in the shower.”

I texted my husband, secretly hoping my distress message would keep him from sleeping in: “Our daughter wet the f***ing mattrees.  What the hell do I do with it?”  Rather than take the bait for a texting war, he calmly responsed: “Put two cups of baking soda in a bowl.  Slowly add about 4 cups of white vinegar.  It will fizz up a lot if you just dump it in.  Top it off with some hot water.  Use the big orange sponge from the kitchen bathroom.  Scrub the area with the solution.  Tip it up and turn the fans on to blow at it.”  (Have I mentioned that my husband is amazing?)

Looking at the clock again, I wasn’t sure that was going to fit into my schedule.  I am someone who makes lists and plans.  I typically have plans that need to be executed within the next ten seconds, ten minutes, ten days, ten weeks, etc.  Seriously.  I have it all worked out.  When something, like maybe two unassuming kids, throws a wrench in those finely made plans, I tend to freak out a bit.  My husband has learned to stay calm in these situations, but his text sent me slowly toward the precipice.  I reached for my Ativan and popped a pill.

I decided I needed to first work out.  I got my daughter out of the shower, laid out her soccer clothes, and told her and her brother to hang out in their rooms for 30 minutes until I came back upstairs.  I took those 30 minutes on the elliptical to calm down.  I came back up, conjured up my husband’s anti-urine potion, and went to work on the mattress while my son got into his soccer clothes.  After working my magic, I propped the mattress up in the tub with a fan forcing cool air directly on it, and ran upstairs to shower myself.

By the time I was ready for the day, we only had about 30 minutes before we had to leave for soccer.  I was clear with the kids, “Daddy’s a little stressed out this morning, so I need you both to listen to me very carefully.  No fighting either.”  They are used to these warnings, and I’d like to believe they’re beyond being scared of them.

30 minutes later, we were out the door heading to soccer.  I had taken on more Ativan to help me through the morning (my therapists says that in moments like this taking two is totally okay), and we made it to soccer without missing a beat.  I even had time to make my chai latte, pack the folding chairs, and a blanket to keep warm now that the fall chill has set in.

It’s taken me a long time to know that mornings like today are totally normal and that given my own personality and ways of dealing with stress that with mornings like today I sometimes need some help to get through them.  I grew up in a dysfunctional environment, one riddled with my mother’s substance abuse, and I think I’m just starting to realize–at 36 years old–how much my childhood was defined by my attempts to make sure things were moving smoothly, something that I clearly feel is my duty as an adult within my own family.

Pumpkin

The fruits of my labor

While there are times that this feeling sends me hurtling over the cliff, fearful for the impending impact.  But then there are times like tonight.  I had made it through the soccer day and put the kids down for nap.  (Yes we still nap…mostly for the adults.)  My husband arrived mid-nap, and joined me in our bed.  I woke up, and decided we needed a special family night, which of course meant we needed to cook a delicious stew and serve them in hollowed out pumpkins, a la Martha Stewart.  (We did in fact use a Martha Stewart recipe.)  I took my son shopping, and we arrived at home to start the long process of making an elaborate meal.  When I arrived home toting several grocery bags, my husband said, “You know if I pulled this on you without any notice, you’d be in a puddle on the floor.”  I smiled in agreement, and we set to work.  The kids helped scrape out the sugar pumpkins while I cooked the sausage and vegetables.  My husband prepped the husks for baking and then set to work on the carving pumpkins for the porch.  Three hours later, we not only had an amazingly delicious white bean and sausage soup served in baked hollowed-out pumpkins, we had helped the kids carve their jack-o-lanterns for the upcoming Halloween festivities.

And this evening, I did it all without narcotics.

Pumpkin2

Angry Pumpkin = Happy Kids

Camp Gasyia

My addiction

I’m super addicted to chai lattes.  A few years ago, I realized I could save a bundle of money by skipping my daily Starbucks trip and making my own lattes at home.  The natural food grocery up the street from our house carries the same brand that the baristas at Starbucks use, so I buy about a half dozen at a time every few weeks.  The store is about a block away from the studio where my kids take dance, and being the king of efficiency that I am, I always combine the trips so that I can run over while the kids are in class.

On Thursdays, our son takes a boys’ dance class, and a friend of mine who has kids the same age and genders as ours brings her son too.  While I typically get to leave my daughter at home with my husband, she has to bring her daughter along to sit in the lobby while her brother dances away; this is typically a recipe for first grade boredom, but this week I had to bring my daughter along because my husband wasn’t home yet.  This worked out well because the two girls just giggled away most of the hour.  Of course this week I also had to make my chai pilgrimage, so I offered to take both girls with me on the short walk.  They came along gladly, smiling and laughing all the way.

We got the to grocer, and I remembered that earlier that day my daughter had asked me to make sure her lunch was nut free so she could sit with some of her friends at the allergy table.  The natural grocery store has a slew of peanut butter alternatives, and I was overwhelmed by the options.  The girls scampered off to look at something or other, and I asked the friendly-looking female clerk for some nut-free spread advice.  She steered me toward some pumpkin seed spread, and I collected both the girls and my boxes of chai before heading back to the same woman to check out.

“Do you run a camp?” she asked, as she ran my goods over the scanner.

“What?” I asked.

“A camp?  Is that what you’re doing with those kids?”

I looked over at the girls, one white and one black, and realized she must have been confused by this pseudo-Asian walking in with two different colored girls.

“Oh, no,” I told her, mildly irritated, “just going to the store with my daughter and her friend.”

“Oh…” she mumbled.  “I…just…uh…you look so young is all.  I figured there was no way those kids were yours.”

“Well, only one of them is, and thank you.”

This sort of thing happens often.  People are genuinely confused by our family, especially when only one of the dads in our family is present.  Things don’t match up visually, and most people want to know why.  What’s difficult about these situations though is that people quickly assume that we can’t possibly all be from the same family.  I wondered why the clerk didn’t ask, “Are those your daughters?” or “Is one of those girls your daughter?”  Is there something inappropriate about asking if two differently colored people are related?  If she simply wanted to open the door to a polite conversation, why not ask, “Do the girls have nut allergies?” which would have been totally appropriate given the circumstances of our interaction.

Who’s worried?

A colleague once told me how she was waiting for a table at a restaurant in Boston.  She and her boyfriend were waiting at the bar, idly making chit chat with two strangers until their names were called.  One of the strangers started talking about her son, and my colleague asked if she could see a picture.  The woman, who was white, pulled out her phone and called up a recent photo.  The photo showed two little boys, one white and one black.  “Don’t worry,” laughed the woman, “my son is the white one!”  After the fact, my colleague wondered why the woman presumed someone might be “worried” that her son was black.

I believe this all speaks to the idea that our society believes darker skin is lesser, certainly less desirable.  This is clearly evident in the white dominated society of America, but it is also documented within minority communities; what happened at the grocery store though is something a little different, or at least it was a result of that societal norm.  Either consciously or not, this clerk opted to ask if I was some sort of hired caregiver for my daughter because to ask if she was related to me was either too preposterous or offensive to even bring up.  I’m hopeful that my short time with her will help her see that my family is nothing to be ashamed of.

Something Was Missing

A few friends with adult children who have read this blog have given me the same feedback: “Stop being so hard on yourself. All parents feel what you’re feeling. You’re doing a good job.”

Let me first respond that I know I’m doing a pretty good job. And I know I’m absolutely not perfect; no parent is. I’ve had my fair share of moments with the kids that I don’t want anybody witnessing, as has my husband, but for the most part, we are doing the right thing by these kids. Still, given the nontraditional make up of our family, I have to constantly question the dynamics at play in shaping our children’s identities. I know the trials and tribulations we experience every day are completely normal, and it’s also true that those experiences are magnified under the many lenses of our family’s marginalization. When that is combined with my own screwed up pathology stemming from the dysfunction in my own family as a child, as well as struggling with my sexuality during my adolescence, the result is a parallel but very different parenting path from those within dominant groups. In detailing our experiences on this blog, I’m not trying to garner praise for our family lifestyle, but instead provide a parallel point of view that might help everyone to empathize with others who might have it a little harder.

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Our son on the day we met him

To move away from some of that psychological rambling, let me illustrate with something concrete. Our son came to live with us after a year in foster care. During that first year, he was provided a loving, deeply religious home, and one that saw a revolving door of probably a half dozen children over the course of his first year.  It was probably about as stable a foster home there is, and it was still one that probably made for a pretty confusing environment for him and the other foster kids.  The family had three biological daughters of their own, all nearly or newly adults, who helped their parents provide this important space for children in need. Our son’s transition into our home was text book according to the Department of Children and Families. We made the necessary visits at the prescribed times of day for approximately one week, and then he quickly moved in to our home over the course of one weekend. On Friday, his foster family brought him home to spend the day with us, and later that night, we returned him to the only bed he had known for the previous year. On Saturday, we repeated the process with the exception of us picking him up in the morning. Then on Sunday morning, Father’s Day 2009, we picked him up and we never brought him back.

We were overjoyed to be welcoming our second child into our home, and the actual trauma this must have caused him barely registered for us at the time. His foster family was lovely, and over the course of the two weeks we spent with them, my husband and I had already composed a list of behaviors we needed to immediately change.  At the top of that list was the way our son threw–literally across the room–his sippy cup when he was done drinking.  We went out to dinner that first night as an official family of four; we walked to a local chain that is super kid-friendly and let the familiar staff coo over the latest addition to our family.  We ordered our food, the drinks arrived, and after taking a few sips from his milk, our son chucked his drink at the party in the next booth. As my husband hurriedly retrieved the cup, I looked at our son and sternly whispered, “We do NOT do that in this family.” This of course prompted immediate tears from our new son.

My husband and I tell this story still to this day as a way to provide mild entertainment at dinner parties. Our friends know that I surely have a case of undiagnosed OCD and making a huge mess like that in a restaurant of all places is enough to send me hurtling over the edge. Thus, the story provides for some polite laughter–or hilarity depending on how much wine we’ve been drinking.

I don’t think much about my relationship with our son in those early months was cause for frivolity though.  Those first few months were difficult for all of us.  Although his foster family suggested he was a great sleeper, he regularly woke up in the night for us. He had a lot of trouble “listening to our words,” choosing instead to try things for himself and only stopping when he got hurt or we freaked out. And he cried. A lot.

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My photo history of those early months shows a lot more laughter than I remember!

This all makes sense of course, and we had done as much reading as we could about transition periods for older kids in foster care.  It still hurt though.  My husband was better about giving our son the time he needed to understand that this was no longer a temporary family; I on the other hand took it personally that he wasn’t immediately doing a little tap dance and singing, “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” from Annie.  We had adopted our daughter through foster care too after all, and she had bonded to us immediately.  Of course, we took her home straight from the hospital; she had known no other parents besides us, no home besides ours.  Still when the turbulence regularly struck in the beginning with our son, I wondered if I’d ever feel like he was really mine.

Let me interject here that I know this may come across as incredibly self-indulgent.  I mean there are people who adopt foster children with significant emotional and behavioral problems, and our son had nothing other than attachment issues going on.  I remember in our training class with DCF we had to respond to various case study scenarios.  In one, the teacher described a hypothetical five-year-old boy who had recently come into our home and just smeared his own feces all over the bathroom walls. “What would you do?” she asked optimistically. “Before or after I’m done throwing up?” was my reply. My fellow would-be foster parents laughed, but I was completely serious.

And this knowledge likely impaired my ability to bond early on even more significantly. I knew that our son was a great kid, a lucky match in a troubled social welfare system. So why wasn’t I more thankful?  Why wasn’t I singing Daddy Warbucks’ ballad “Something Was Missing”?  As some people have pointed out, I can be pretty hard on myself.  But I really was having trouble feeling for our son what I felt for our daughter. When I broached the subject with my husband, he was far more pragmatic than I: “Of course I don’t feel that way about him yet; he just got here. I trust that I will feel that way in time; I trust that you will feel that way.”

So I waited.

I shared stories about how crazy different our son is than I expected him to be, and lots of friends with biological children shared similar stories.  This helped a little bit. I talked about the issues with my therapist.  That helped some more.  I watched my husband develop a more meaningful connection with our son, and I tried to not let jealously overwhelm me.  I saw our daughter so thankful to have a new brother to boss around play with, and I knew that my time would come.

And it did. I can’t pinpoint the time that it happened, but it happened. My son and I are bonded together now, and we have a lot in common, although not the types of things that fathers and sons typically brag about.  We both have a similar disposition of anger in that we each lash out at the people we love when we are hurt.  When he’s upset, he’ll say whatever he can to make sure we are as angry as he is.  This is a little trick of manipulation that I may or may not use on my husband from time to time, and I’ve even used the power for good to teach both kid about the ramifications of their behavior and choices.  We also share an energy that sometimes leaves my husband and our daughter panting.  When we’re in the city, my son and I can be found about three blocks ahead our familial counterparts: we nearly speed walking, muttering, “We’ve got places to be!”; they strolling along at a geriatric’s pace, enjoying the sights and paying no mind to time.

We still have our moments of depravity–lots of them–times when he brings me to the edge of my parenting patience and then pushes me right over that precipice. And in those moments, I have to ask if this is a result of that displacement he experienced at a year old, or possibly because of the doubts I had about our relationship when he was so young.  My husband and I have to consider these factors, and we have to consider how healthy it is for us to treat our kids the same as our friends treat their own biological kids.  Are we providing them a normative experience by doing so, or are we dismissing their individual needs? Every parent asks some variation on these questions, and we all get the answers wrong about as often as we get them right.

So no, I’m not posting these musings to convey how hard I am on myself, even if I know I could often tread a little lighter.  And I’m not hoping to engender some sort of sympathy about how rough life is.  Our life as a family is exhausting–just as everyone’s life in a family whether traditional or otherwise is exhausting.  We just all exist on different plateaus, and I hope this helps illuminate that fact just a little bit.

I’m hopeful that readers keep this all in mind if you choose to keep visiting these pages.  Things are just different, not necessarily easier or harder.  This is especially true when I write about the internal homicidal rage that is inspired by my son saying he wants to wear sweat pants to school every day.  I mean, seriously, sweat pants?!  Maybe my son knows how this drives me nuts, and he chooses to deliberately push that particular button to send me into that free fall that every parent knows so well, a free fall that feels devastating and life altering as it’s happening, but that seems silly and insignificant in hindsight.  Because when my son comes trotting home after school in baggy sweat pants that are caked with mud, a huge smile plastered across his face as he chases me for a hug and I scream, “Do not touch me with those dirty hands!” I realize that life is exactly as it’s meant to be, that when my husband and daughter and I were a happy family of three we didn’t even know the something that was missing was him.

Teaching Your Children About Genocide

photoYesterday, both kids came home with Columbus Day-related artwork.  Our Kindergarten son came home with a semi-elaborate poster of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, and our daughter had constructed a similar boat with paper attached to a pencil.  As I looked at these cute little pieces, I thought of what a colleague told me recently about the tall ships returning to Boston.  There was a lot of hullabaloo about these tall ships sailing into Boston Harbor, lots of positive press and fanfare; this colleague said an African American friend of hers told her that every time he looks at a tall ship, he is reminded of his ancestors being forcibly brought here.  For him, those ships are nothing to celebrate.  I know for many people, Columbus Day is not merely a day off, but a day of mourning.  So I flexed my brain a bit, and tried to broach the topic with the kids.

“What did you learn about these boats in school?”

“It’s the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.”

“Yeah, and they belonged to Christopher Columbus.”

“And what did you learn about Christopher Columbus?”

“He was trying to find a way to…to somewhere…and he came here.”

“Right, he discovered this land.”

“Well, let’s talk about that a bit.  Were there people here already?”

“Yes!  Native Americans were here.”

“So did Columbus really discover this land?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, how about if someone from California who had never been to Massachusetts came to our town and they said they ‘discovered’ it.  What if they came to our house and decided that since they had never been here and didn’t know our house existed that they could now take the house from us and force us out.  Would that be right?”

“No.  This is our house!”  My daughter was taking on the opposing point of view with her overly empathetic disposition.  My son’s eyes were starting to glaze over.

“Right, so isn’t that kind of what Christopher Columbus did?”

“Sort of, but what happened to all the Native Americans who lived here Daddy?”

“Some of them are still here, but lots of them died.  Lots of people think that Christopher Columbus actually hurt them.”

“That’s not good.”

This is as far as I would get this time.  I tried to push it a little further, but my son started equating what I was saying with a critique of his artwork.  I knew that I had reached my daughter though, and a few minutes later when my son was singing that traditional Columbus song, where he “sailed the ocean blue,” she asked him to stop because he was making her sad.  Then it turned into a battle of who could make the other more angry, him singing the song louder and her saying he was going to make her cry.  Normal sibling rivalry using our nation’s history of genocide.  What proud parents we are.

A good friend who was an elementary music teacher for many years used to teach this song by Nancy Shimmel, and I think I’ll be passing it along to the music teacher at my kids’ elementary school.  Enjoy!

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Audio

Words and music © 1991 by Nancy Schimmel

In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue,
It was a courageous thing to do
But someone was already here.
Columbus knew the world was round
So he looked for the East while westward bound,
But he didn’t find what he thought he found
And someone was already here.

Chorus:

The Innuit and Cherokee,
The Aztec and Menominee,
The Onadaga and the Cree;
Columbus sailed across the sea,
But someone was already here.

It isn’t like it was empty space,
Caribs met him face to face.
Could anyone discover the place
When someone was already here?

Chorus

So tell me, who discovered what?
He thought he was in a different spot.
Columbus was lost, the Caribs were not;
They were already here.

Chorus

More Adventures in Babysitting

Creepy generic nanny clipart

The imminent departure of our early morning babysitter necessitated a search for a suitable replacement two weeks ago.  About a dozen women responded to our advertisement on a caregiver website.  We set up a few appointments with the white women who applied, and then we received a response from a woman of color, a determination we could make from her profile picture.  For the reasons outlined in my previous posts, we would ideally like to hire a person of color for our children.  We jumped at the chance to set up an appointment with this woman, Miss S, and she graciously agreed to come by two days later.  The morning of the meeting though, she emailed me to say she couldn’t make that evening’s appointment.  I wrote her back immediately, asking if she wanted to reschedule.  We never heard back.  We felt defeated.  Living where we do and our country being segregated in the ways it is–housing, economics, education, health care–we have had to go well beyond our personal boundaries and social circles to find caregivers who will provide a reflection of our kids’ outer and inner selves.  Clearly Miss S did not meet the latter criterion, but we felt like the carrot that had dangled in front of us was too quickly snatched away.

We then met with Miss E, a lovely young Brazilian au pair from São Paulo.  She seemed competent, interacted well with the kids, and even had some experience with African American hair in spite of her light complexion.  Best of all, she is living with a family within walking distance of our home, and she daily begins work with them shortly after our morning stint ends.  We also loved the idea of her speaking to the kids in Portuguese, helping them pick up a few words here and there.

This was followed by Miss M, a white woman from a neighboring town who conveyed herself as both experienced and strange.  We were most put off by her list of references, which included a woman with merely a first name and last initial.  By means of explanation, Miss M said, “She’s Indian and she has a really crazy last name that I could never remember.”  M’kay, thank you…buh-bye.

Then we received an email from Miss N, a woman of color from a town about twenty minutes away.  We set up an appointment with her, and she was lovely in disposition and appearance.  She’s in her 40s and has an eight year old son (her mother has agreed to take him to school if she were to work with our kids in the morning).  She had several years experience working in a preschool, and her references unflinchingly sang her praises when I contacted them.  Miss N was hoping to find a part-time nannying job, and she felt our position was perfect because of our proximity to the commuter rail, which would provide her easy transportation back and forth with arrival and departure times perfect for our kids’ morning schedule.

We were torn between Miss E and Miss N, both of whom seemed especially reliable.  The former would provide our children a diverse world perspective, while the latter would give us that added component of serving as an adult role model of color, something of which we feel our kids can never have too many.  As my husband and I weighed the pros of each side, we opted for Miss N, thinking she had the potential of being a multi-year caregiver if things worked out.

I was sure we’d made the right decision when I called Miss N to offer her the job.  “I’m just so happy!” she shouted into the phone.  She seemed genuinely excited to be working with us and our kids, and we’re hopeful that she’ll be a great fit with our needs, a woman who will care for our kids by providing a structured and positive atmosphere to start their days.  (She also agreed to give us four weeks’ notice if the mere two hours a day and travel time didn’t pan out for her, which we think has been an unnamed deal breaker for others.)

This week we’ll bid adieu to Miss T, and next week we’ll welcome Miss N into our home.  We’ll keep our fingers crossed that the stars will align, that two dads in suburbia will grow increasingly comfortable handing our children over to a relative stranger who will help our kids feel safe and happy.

White people’s babysitting problems

Dr. Who?

How about house calls?

I’ve always been one who longs to have that small town doctor who knows me and my family so well that he can guess my ailment before I even feel any symptoms.  However, I’ve always been relegated to drift aimlessly amidst a sea of doctors who either barely make eye contact or are ridiculously pompous, neither of which makes me feel very comfortable.  I’m straightforward but reserved when I’m alone around new people, and since I’m also a relatively healthy person, I’m not the type to achieve familiarity with my doctor through multiple visits weekly visits.

When we first moved to the suburbs, my husband and I found a really nice doctor through a local friend.  He was personable and kind, and whatever he notes he took in my file allowed him to make some pointed comments of familiarity the few times a year I came in to see him.  The only problem was the wait.  If I had a 2:30 appointment, I’d sit in the waiting room until 3:15, move to an exam room where I’d wait another hour before finally get to see the doctor for about five minutes.  As the kids got older, we simply couldn’t spare the extra time, so I made the decision to switch doctors one night when my husband was two hours late for dinner and I was left alone with two unruly children.  I even sent a letter explaining the reason for our change was only due to the excessive wait times we had experienced over the years.  (The local friend who still sees this doctor says the wait times have dramatically improved, so perhaps we effected some significant change.)

Finding ourselves without a primary care physician, we asked our neighbors across the street if they liked their doctor.  Our neighbors are two gay men with two adopted children of their own, so we figured if they felt comfortable with their doctor, perhaps we would too.  We signed on with their new doctor, and we liked him a lot.  Then a few weeks later our neighbor was flying to Europe and saw our doctor seated on the flight.  “Where are you headed?” he asked with surprise.  “I’m moving to Europe,” our doctor responded demurely.  With no notice to his many patients, he had up and moved out of the country; word on the suburban street was that he was chasing a much younger European man who had stolen his heart.  Oh, and he also was trying to become a pop singer, as evidenced by some pretty disturbing YouTube videos.

This was about a year and a half ago, and I last saw Dr. Pop Singer about two weeks before he left.  I hadn’t any need to see a new doctor until my annual physical, and I couldn’t get an appointment with the doctor who was taking on Dr. Pop Singer’s patients until today.

My finely tuned gaydar is always active

I began my appointment by informing the front desk of my new name.  My gaydar was sending me friendly signals about the male receptionist in front of me, and when I told him I had recently taken my husband’s last name, he smiled and said, “I did the same thing when I got married.”  He was almost giddy with data processing, entering in my new information and asking me questions about how people had responded, like what my students had said.  He was so happy to hear that with the exception of Comcast, the transition has been relatively smooth.  I took a seat and waited for my name to be called.

A short time later I found myself in an exam room with a kind and petite nurse who took my blood and–due to my heavy shoes–graciously subtracted five pounds from the number flashing on the electric scale.  Before she left me alone, I was instructed to disrobe and put on a hospital gown.

A few minutes later, the new doctor entered.  I noticed immediately he was a large man who carried his extra weight with a pompous air, as though an enormous belly is the healthy norm.

“We’ve never met, correct?” he huffed at me.

“Nope.”

“Well let’s take a look at your chart here.”  He pulled up my information on the computer.  “Well, you used to see Dr. M, but you got smart and came here.”

I wasn’t sure how to read this.  Why exactly was I smart?  Did he know about the notoriously long wait times of the past?  Or was there something else going on here?  Dr. M is middle eastern and speaks with a heavy accent.  Was I smart for going to someone a little more “American”?

After mentioning his former pop-singing colleague with a roll of his eyes, he started to fill in some blanks on the chart.  “Ha!  It says here in the notes you are married to a and that you have two kids.  That’s what it says: You’re married to a.  To a what?!”  I made about as comfortable a laugh as I could sitting there in my semi-nude state.  “You’re gay I assume,” he said as clicked a little drop down menu for “homosexual” before waiting for a response.  I told him yes, but I wasn’t sure why he assumed I was gay.

Then to my chagrin, he continued to have a one-sided conversation as he began the exam.  With a shiny light poking the many holes in my head, he said, “Funny story.  My daughter is in middle school, and we went to Back to School night the other day.  We met with one of her teachers and later she said, ‘Dad, did you know he’s…’ and then she wouldn’t say it!  Now our daughter is only twelve and pretty innocent.  We have gay neighbors, but she doesn’t think of anyone as anything other than just who they are.  Finally we got it out of her: ‘He’s gay.’  I said, ‘How do you know?’ and she said, ‘He tells us all the time.  He talks about how he sings with the Gay Men’s Chorus!”  He laughed heartily.  “Can you believe it?!”

I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to be questioning the credibility of his story.  Was it that his daughter is innocent?  That he has gay neighbors?  That his daughter has a gay teacher?  No, clearly he was implying that the portion of the story that was supposed to bring out my incredulity was the part where the teacher nonchalantly mentioned he was singing with the Gay Men’s Chorus.

I wonder what stories this man would find so incredible if his daughter was in my class.  “Daddy, my English teacher said he took his husband’s name, just like that.  No, by the way I’m gay or anything!  As though it were the most normal thing in the world!”  After the doctor finished coughing up his dinner roll, he would smile at his own good fortune; his daughter would have again supplied him with another fabulous story with which to regale his unsuspecting patients.  Not only was he doctor, he had some pretty fabulous tales to tell.

Look Over There

Last night we took the kids to see La Cage aux Folles at North Shore Music Theater. As a gay teenager in the early 90s, I knew that I was supposed to have some sort of deep reverence for the show. I hadn’t seen a production of it by the time I graduated high school, and I found the music interesting but forgettable. I remember in college reading that it beat out Sunday in the Park with George for the 1984 Best Musical Tony Award, and my esoteric musical theater egotism swelled, thinking that simple-minded Jerry Herman couldn’t possible conquer the intricate musical stylings of Sondheim (this is similar to the feeling everyone has when the realize that The Music Man bested West Side Story in the same way nearly two decades prior…I’m sure there’s some sports metaphor equivalent I can make, but I’m not aware of it).  My journey to understanding La Cage aux Folles though started with my early life in the theater.

Shoes were apparently not in the costume budget

Shoes were apparently not in the costume budget

My first performance on a legit stage was in the fourth grade when I was double-cast as the dormouse in a production of Alice in Wonderland. After that soporific triumph, I took a three-year hiatus from the stage until I auditioned for Bye, Bye Birdie in seventh grade. I was cast as Karl, a name that only appears in the script. I’m pretty sure they cut Karl out of several numbers he was originally supposed to be in because of my inability to match pitch unless someone was singing directly in my ear, but I still had a great time, and made my return to the middle school stage as Sasha the following year in Fiddler on the Roof. (Sasha is a Russian chorus boy in the show. I believe playing a Russian in Fiddler is the equivalent of being a bench warmer in sports, but again, I had a great time.)

In opposition to the demands of my adoring public, I didn’t audition for Carousel my freshman year of high school, but I did go out for Kiss Me, Kate the next year, and made my return to the third row of the chorus amidst fifty or so dramatic teens. Junior year I played some sort of Canadian forest ranger (aka: chorus boy) in Little Mary Sunshine, and that summer I let some friends talk me into auditioning at the local community theater. The first show of their season was Guys & Dolls, and as is the endless problem of many a community theater, there weren’t so many guys as dolls doing lip trills in the waiting room for the auditions. I was cast on the spot as a chorus boy, and my theatrical ego began to swell as I found myself doing theater beyond my high school while still in high school, which is the equivalent of making a shot in basketball from one of those white lines near the middle of the court, or so I’m told.  (I’m trying to make this relatable for you sports types!)

Not only had I been cast in this community theater production of Guys & Dolls, but I was the only high school kid in the show. The guys dancing alongside me in this production were older men, many of whom were gay. These men became my first real glimpses into “gay life,” which essentially boiled down to “life just about like anyone else.” Some of these guys had high powered jobs and just loved doing theater, and some of them had low-end 9 to 5 jobs and theater allowed them to suffer the toils of their workdays. Nearly all of these older gay men adored La Cage aux Folles. As I tried to fit in with these older gay men–even though I wasn’t quite “out” to myself or to them yet–I really tried to like La Cage, but it always left me feeling somewhat cold, never exciting me the way that other shows like A Chorus Line or the new revival of Damn Yankees did.

When I started dating my now husband, he spoke of La Cage with the same kind of esteemed respect that I knew I was supposed to have, and he even sang “I Am What I Am” during his senior year recital as a vocal major in college. I pretended to love the show because I knew that I loved this man and he obviously wouldn’t love me back if I didn’t like the same things as him. I met his mentors and role models, men who seemed to love the show as much as I knew I was supposed to. I started to think I was some kind of trader. Was I failing the gay test by not being totally in love with La Cage aux Folles?

He looked WAY older on stage

I think at that point I had never actually seen an entire production of the show.  I’d seen Jerry Herman’s snarky comments upon his win at the Tony Awards that year, and I’d seen a number or two on television or on YouTube, but I’d never sat through the entire show.  A few years ago, my husband and I went to see the touring production of the 2010 Tony Award-winning revival, and it started to grow on me.  That production starred a distractingly old George Hamilton, and while I enjoyed certain aspects, I honestly couldn’t stop thinking about Hamilton keeling over on stage.  I came away from the show understanding how amazing this must have been to a gay man in 1984, inspiring so many to fight so hard to provide my families the opportunities we have today nearly thirty years later.  I enjoyed that historical impact of the show, but I still wasn’t going gaga over it.

Last night, years later, I think I finally passed the La Cage gay test.  We had given the kids a brief overview of the plot, and our daughter picked up pretty quickly that the family at the center of the show is one with two dads just like hers. She was sitting between me and my husband, and when the two dads sing their first love song, she grabbed my hand and pulled it into her lap where she placed it in my husband’s hand. She smiled at me and placed her hands on top of mine and turned her attentions back to the show. Then at intermission my husband took our son to stretch his legs in the lobby, and I explained to our daughter that the son was nervous about telling the woman he loved he had two dads. She asked why, and I explained to her that some people don’t like that some families look like ours. She said that was stupid, and she hoped that the boy in the show would tell the truth.  (We also had some great conversation about how some people like to wear clothes that most people say are for people of the other gender, and all of that is totally okay and there’s nothing scary about it.  There were lots of teachable moments last night.)

Halfway through the show, the son hits his peak of selfishness in the show, claiming that his fathers owe him something because of all that he had endured having two dads growing up, all the teasing at school, the countless times he was was left alone to defend his parents. While the character is petulant and cold, I know there is truth there. We all go through the stage of feeling our parents owe us something due to the embarrassment we suffer at their very existence, even those of us with a heterosexual mom and dad at home, and kids with non-nuclear families feel even more entitled to feelings of fairness.  So when the character sings a reprise of “Look Over There” and reveals that he understands the sacrifices his parents made for him and the ways in which they made him the man he has become, I got a little teary-eyed.

There will be times when our kids scream horrible things at us (I’m imagining something along the lines of “If I had a mother she’d let me do it!”), and I know that’s really all part of growing up.  I remember the first time (of not many) that I screamed, “I hate you!” at my mother.  She was so upset, and I quickly realized that it was a weapon far too powerful to be wielded by my adolescent hands, and of course it simply wasn’t a true statement.  Our son has already experimented with that dangerous arsenal; he’s prone to heightened fits when he doesn’t get his way, and there was a period of time he was saying things like, “I want to leave this family.”  He was always very contrite afterward and assured us that it wasn’t something that he really believed.  A friend of ours who works with the psychology of young children suggests that in those moments of anger his mind has simply been hijacked, which helps make us feel a little better.  In those moments when our children focus their infuriated ire at us, I can hum this little ditty in my head, thinking that at some point someone will ask them, “How often is someone concerned / With the tiniest thread of your life? / Concerned with whatever you feel / And whatever you touch?” and they’ll nod our way and say, “Look over there.”