I know, I know, I know, I said I would only ever write that one post about poop, but YOU GUYS, today was a shit show in 3 parts.


PART ONE: THE PHANTOM MENACE

I woke up, threw on yoga pants and a sweatshirt, changed two poopy diapers, washed my hands, and poured two bowls of cereal.

While the boys ate, I packed two box lunches for our day at the zoo, made a bagel for myself, and ate it, licking cream cheese from my thumb when a single, lightly sour shmear found itself irresistibly on the skin between the joints of my finger.

I read two stories, shoved two sets of kicking legs into two pairs of jeans. I smelled poop.

I pulled open the back of Buster's pants to peer down into his diaper. "Did you poop, B?" Nope.

I poured two water bottles, stuffed them into my backpack. I smelled poop.

I patted Chicken's diapered bottom and gave it a gentle squeeze. "Did you poop again?" Nope.

I put on 3 pairs of shoes. Squeezed a small dollop of sunscreen into the cup of my palm, spread it over Chicken's face, Buster's face, their hands, their necks. I smelled poop.

I smelled Buster's hair, Chicken's hair. Nope.

I herded the boys down to the garage, and clipped them into the stroller. I slipped on my backpack, slipped down my shades, and opened the garage.

I worked my earbuds into my ears. And that's when I saw it.

clever girl

Well obviously I couldn't go to the zoo with a poopy sweatshirt - the monkeys would riot.
Obviously I would have to go back upstairs and change my shirt and put this shirt into the washer on extra hot.
Obviously a socialized human woman would never knowingly commit to 5 hours of wearing a garment crusted in shit.
Obviously all of the work that went into getting these two kids dressed and packed and clipped into the strollers with 4 shoes on 4 feet mostly correctly, all of that momentum must now fizzle and die in this driveway so that I can address my personal standards of hygiene.
Obviously...

fuck the man
let's roll


PART TWO: NOT ALL SHIT IS SHIT


We got home from the zoo and I hustled Chicken up the stairs with one hand, my other arm (the one with the poop sleeve) hooked snugly under Buster's butt as he snored on my shoulder.

He darted to the landing and grabbed his rain boots.

"No," I said.

"But!" he said.

"No," I said.

"But I just wanna bring them in the room for a minute!"

"Fine," I said.

(If you are tempted to say a single fucking word about boundaries and consistency and rewarding negative behaviors like persistent boundary-testing, two things: 1) remember that I am STILL wearing a sweatshirt with shit crusted on the sleeve; 2) thoughts are just thoughts but you better ask somebody before you turn those thoughts into words.)

Chicken walked straight into my bedroom (Thank you, Jesus, for your small mercies) and I murmured, aware of how close my mouth was to Buster's ear, "I'll be right there, honey. I'm just going to put B down."

"Okay, Mommy," he replied. Huh! That was easy.

I lay Buster down, switched off the lamp. He rolled over, tucked his knees under his body, and heaved a sigh that could only mean FINALLY.

I closed the door and crossed the hall to my room.

I opened the door.

Chicken sat in my bed, wearing his rain boots and the particular brand of radiant, toothy smile that Crest commercial directors can only dream about.

"No," I said.

"But!" he said.

"No," I said, "we have to see if they're clean before you get in my bed."

"They're clean!" I looked at the boots. Huh! They are clean!

"I guess they are clean," I said.

"Yeah," said Chicken. I opened my mouth to give my blessing on boots in bed, but before I could speak, Chicken continued, "but they're full of sand."

WHAT.

"They are?" I put my hands under his armpits to pull him out of bed, but before I got my latch, he pulled off the boots.

... and that, my friends, is why you need a Dustbuster.

... and that, my friends, is why you need a vacuum for when you don't charge your Dustbuster.

#notallshitisshit
#someshitissand
#sandisshit
#yousandedinmybedmofo


PART THREE: THAT'S VERY CREATIVE

During quiet time, I made some phone calls and took care of household business.

At about 3:20, I looked at the clock and thought, "woah! I bet Chicken fell asleep."

I went into the bedroom. I gasped.

Chicken was not asleep.

He sat on the floor next to my bedside table, and when he heard the door open he turned to look over his shoulder.

"I made a waterfall," he said, gesturing to the painting on the wall.



"Is that...?"

"Poop," he said. "Yeah, it was kinda hard to paint with, but... I made a waterfall." His eyes held me. He waited for the verdict.

Two voices warred inside me:

WHAT THE LITERAL SHIT. 

But look at him. He's so proud.

HE IS PROUD THAT HE SMEARED HUMAN SHIT ON THE WALL. THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT.

But he's worked quietly on this waterfall--

IT'S NOT A WATERFALL. DON'T NAME THE SHIT PAINTING. IT'S NOT A KITTEN YOU FOUND UNDER THE PORCH. IT IS SHIT ON THE WALL WHERE YOU SLEEP.

-- for an hour and a half. Really, this is--

ARE THOSE GOUGE-MARKS? WHAT WAS HE PAINTING WITH?

Good question.




"What did you paint with, baby?"

He pointed to my iPhone charger, relieved of its charging duties now and forevermore.

I picked up the charger, held it up to the light.

Me: Wow.
Him: Yeah.
Me: Did you... dip it?
Him: Yeah, I kinda dipped it
Me: In your diaper?
Him: Yeah, and out of my diaper where the poop is out of my diaper. I dipped it and then I scraped it.
Me: Huh.


Yep. That's what he used. That makes sense. It was plugged in right there.

THIS IS NOT OKAY. WHAT KIND OF SAVAGE BEAST--

-- but if nobody ever told you that painting with your own shit was wrong, how would you know?

BECAUSE IT SMELLS LIKE SHIT.

That's a construct.

YOU'RE A CONSTRUCT. SHIT IS NOT FOR PLAYING WITH.

You're closed-minded and afraid of what people will think of you.

WHAT NO YOU ARE MY COUSIN'S GAY AND HIS BOYFRIEND IS REALLY NICE.

Who said anything about gay?

WHAT YOU DID

He's still watching us to see what we'll do.

SHAME HIM

Hug him

YELL AT HIM

Hug him

FINE. HUG HIM. 

AFTER A BATH.

I said, "you know what? That is very creative, baby. I really love your waterfall."

He sighed, with relief or resignation I couldn't say. Then he said, "I really love it too, but I don't want to tell anybody about it. I don't want them to say 'oh dear.'  What I want them to say is 'that's very creative.'"

I took him to the bathroom and ran a hot, bubbly bath. I wiped all the smears of poop from his back, his legs, his arms, his fingers.

I texted Ryan:

Me: I am about to call you and tell you something Chicken did. You CANNOT SAY OH DEAR.

Ryan: OK

Me: You have to say something like, "that's very creative."

Ryan: OK

The phone call went very well.

After that, Chicken asked if we could call Nana. I texted Nana the instructions: Express nothing but amazement at his creativity. We called. We told her. Nana played along like the seasoned champ she is. When she said, "wow, I am so amazed at how creative you are, to use a cell phone charger to paint with your own poop. That is amazing. I don't think I know anybody who has ever done that before," Chicken's entire face lit up. He joy-whispered, "she said it, too!"

Sure, sure, we had the talk about how shit is not a toy and it could make you sick and give you diseases.

Sure, sure, he watched as I gloved up and cleaned and sanitized the waterfall and talked about bacteria and pink-eye.

But I think we all learned a bigger lesson today. The question is, what is that lesson?

1. A clean sweatshirt is always a good idea but yo, once the kids are strapped in WE ARE GOING.

2. When given the choice between sand and shit, I choose (sets house on fire)

3. There's a thin line between deface and defecate.

Those are all good ones, but I think the big lesson today was this:

Unless you're prepared for heavy - SAY AGAIN - HEAVY HOSTILE ENGAGEMENT with another person's crap, please use birth control. 

And before you ask, there is only one "Rhythm Method" that actually prevents pregnancy:

jesus

oh god

the rhythm...

i can't

i'm sorry
you're really pretty but
i may never ejaculate again
i think
i think i can hear
my sperm
they're drinking the kool aid
they're ready
for the next life
for the reckoning

please
please
please stop


I had a plan.

Saturday night, after weeks of being stretched in a thousand different directions like a Gumby who'd dared to wrong a Medieval king, I said to myself "enough is enough. Take care of yourself."

I sat on the couch and made a plan.

This would be the week of Taking Care of Myself.

I made a list of things I wanted to do:

- Run
- Yoga
- Get a pedicure
- Dinner with a friend, in a restaurant, no kids
- Go to a movie
- Cook a meal after the kids are asleep with a glass of wine and music
- Take a long bath
- Take a long walk

This list is pretty sad, you guys. That a grown-ass woman needs to write a contract with herself to achieve pleasant conditions for bathing and walking and eating? That's pretty low.

Note the absence of bucket-list-level items here. I wasn't reaching for the stars. Didn't need to win the powerball to do anything on that list. Nothing I'd need a lawyer to clear up for me after the fact with a bottle of prescription pills that "clearly caused a funny reaction." Just regular lady relaxing stuff. Stuff I imagine everyone else does all the time even though probably nobody else does them and everyone just thinks that everyone else is doing these things and nobody is actually doing them.

Here's what I've done so far this week:

- Run (yes!)

- Go to the grocery store with the boys (no!)

- Get sand poured on my head by a seven-year-old who said "sorry" while grinning at me and STILL POURING (dick!)

- Wait on hold for the Municipal Courthouse Customer Service Representative to tell me the number on the parking ticket that was jacked out of my car. (rage!)

- Pay a parking ticket. (resignation to the fact that I am a dumbass who earned a parking ticket!)

- Wait on hold for the health insurance customer service representative to clear up who is and is not in network. (despair!)

- Fold laundry with a glass of bourbon (so this is what I've become! This is the most I can hope for in a week that I explicitly labeled as a week of self care! Folding! Wheeeeeeee!)

It's demoralizing, to say the least. WHO LIVES LIKE THIS?!?!

and then
i saw this
perfectly stacked
pile of books
each opened
to his favorite page
then laid down
precisely
i can just see
his hands
smoothing the edges of the pages
into one
perfect
pile


What was I saying?

Cooking with Chicken:
Deer Juice


ah deer juice
a holiday
family
favorite

do you know how to make deer juice
okay
i'll tell you

first you kill a deer
with a knife

first you cut off the head
and then
everything happens

then you take the dead deer
and you put it into a machine
and then the knife starts blading
and it squeezes

then you put some glass in to hold the juice
and then you put the cap in the machine
and then there's a sticker that sticks on the bottle
to tell you what the juice is
(it's deer)
and it sticks on
and then you take a bottle cap and put it into the machine
and then the machine kind of cuts it
and then a grabber grabs the cap
and puts it onto the bottle
but then
just then
juice squirts in the bottle
and this is the deer juice.

yum. really good.
almost like deer.
because it's deer juice.

deer has juice in it
but deer has fiber too
and deer juice doesn't have fiber
but juice has a lot of water
and one small scoop of sugar.

i think that's the end of the recipe.
mommy?
write "the end."

the end.
First Person
a poem about mad chickens
narration
and finding your way around I


As he squirmed from my arms,
crawled out of reach,
and bolted to his bedroom, he announced:

Squirming!
Crawling!
Escaping!

Last week I held him on my lap
to keep him in the room.
Turning round and round in my arms, he said:

Power-struggling!
Power-struggling!
Power-struggling!

I can't tell if I am amused
or enraged.
He knows exactly what he's doing.

He knows
exactly
what he's doing.

This is his new conversational tic.
He's become the narrator
of maneuvers.

His narrator's voice is pinched and panting,
like he's battling something enormous,
slippery, and locked:

pinned under a whale
that's slipped from its hammock-on-a-winch, perhaps,
or sweating out the biggest poop of his life.

Fighting!
Pushing!
Writhing!

For awhile I smiled.
His diction was, after all,
both specific and accurate.

He said writhing,
and writhing he was.
Nice vocab, little man!

Nice emotional fluency!
I said "I'm proud of you,"
to us both.

All those parenting books
with detailed instructions
of how to become the person I must urgently become,

they must have done some trick.
We're here.
The boy knows every word for squirm.

It was a hard morning.
Something was wrong and
I didn't know what question to ask.

(Figuring out what question to ask
is 50% of love. The other 50%
is waiting quietly to hear the answer.)

I waited for him to answer
the question I hadn't asked yet -
Are you okay?

Do you have a poopy butt?
Did you wake up too early?
Are you an ass hole now, or what?

He kicked his brother in the throat
and bolted.
He knows that's not okay.

I caught him by the arm
and pulled him into my lap
and held him.

Pushing
Kicking
Fighting

Escaping
Squirming
Rolling

Diving
Hitting
Struggling

His eyelids clenched.
His fists shot.
His back arched, coiled, curved.

Struggling
Struggling
Struggling

Isn't it amazing
how many words he knows
for help

and how look it took me
waiting quietly
to hear the answer to the question I hadn't asked.

I imagine him in the dark
heart thundering as he calls out
"Mommy! I'm in the dark!"

I imagine my voice returning,
reedy through the dripping air,
"you're right! It is dark!"

Mommy, I don't care about right;
I want to be out of the dark,
back in the light.

I'd been thinking in first-person.
narrating his maneuvers
starting first, always, with me, my, I.

I'm the parent, the interpreter,
the reader of all the books.
"My son has a great vocabulary."

"I've been working hard
to support his emotional fluency."
"I hear your words, baby. I see your body."

But look at me,
Mommy.
Hear me.

Flailing
Squirming
Escaping
Running away
Fighting
Kicking
Help me

A train leaves Pittsburgh
traveling west at breakneck speed.
Oh God, oh God, we're going too fast!

The compass,
its arrow specific and accurate,
will point steadfastly west

all the way to the scene of the crash.

The compass,
its arrow precocious and bright,
cannot ease off the gas.

I sat in the big chair
with his desperate limbs thrashing
and said

Holding
Breathing
Calming

He slapped my arm
and kicked my chest
and panted

Kicking
Hitting
Scraping

I put my hand on his back
as hot and damp as a fresh loaf of bread wrapped up too soon
and said

Stroking
Helping
Loving

He slipped his arms around my neck,
his legs around my waist.
He pressed his face into my shoulder.

He bonded to my body
tight as a barnacle, suddenly stock still
in the whipping tides.

I waited, quietly.
He said
Loving, too.


loving
more
Chicken had a truck. Oh no! There's been a terrible accident! Hurry, we have to get to the fire department!

Buster had a truck. Beep! Beep! Beep! Truck! Grrrrrrrrrr....

I had a cup of coffee.


turkish
and pungent
like i like my men

or or or

ground to dust
and in hot water
like i like my men

or or or or or or

leaves a stain
and an aftertaste
like i like my men

this is fun


I looked at the clock. It was 9:20 am.

I thought, "shit seems under control in here. I'm going to pop into the bedroom and throw on some deodorant and some going-to-Costco clothes - yoga pants, tank, sweatshirt. It'll take me 2 minutes."

I stood up, said, "I'm going to get dressed. I'll be right back, guys! Call me if you need me!"

Pro tip: "Call me if you need me," should be filed under the heading of "shit that never fucking works but I always try anyway because it SEEMS like it should work," along with, "Hey Chicken, I need your help! Can you show your little brother how big boys brush their teeth?" and "Counting to 3 as if something will happen at 3."

Should I ever be called to the stand to account for the next thirty seconds, this is exactly what I will say I heard as soon as I left the room.

thuddy thud thuddy thud thuddy thud
THWACK
"BUSTERRR NOOOO!"
(silence)
"AAAAAAAAHHHH! MOOOOMMMMYYYY!"
thuddy thud thuddy thud thuddy thud thuddy thud
SPLASH
thuddy thud thuddy thud thuddy thud thuddy thud
"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!"
PANTING
(silence)
(silence)
(silence)

By the time I ran out of the bedroom wearing only one armpit's worth of deodorant, the whole line of dominos had already fallen.

I looked at the clock. It was 9:20 am.

Using sophisticated interrogation techniques...

 ("Chicken? I'm not mad.
Just tell me what happened.
Now.
Tell me now.
Chicken.
ONE... Tell me what happened.
TWOOOO... Last chance...
THREE.
Okay, seriously, I need you to tell me what happened.
Hey babe?
I really need your help!
Can you show your little brother how big boys tell their mommies what happened?
Buddy?")

... I have reconstructed the series of events that occurred between the hours of  9:20:00 am and 9:20:30 am:

1. Buster ran over to Chicken, reared back, and slapped him in the face.

2. Chicken bit Buster on the arm (Witness would like to clarify that he was not trying to bite his brother's arm OFF.)

3. Buster ran screaming down the hallway to my bedroom.

4. Chicken ran into the kitchen, filled a glass of water to the brim, and dumped the entire thing on the floor (Witness notes that the floor was dirty and needed a good scrub. Witness's report is consistent with the facts of the kitchen floor.)


exhibit a
it was a lot of water you guys
pygmy seal
for scale

5. Buster ran screaming back down the hallway to the play room.

6. Chicken pulled all the cushions off the couch and burrowed into them (Witness would like the record to show that he is a tiger who lives under the ground like a worm.)

7. Buster found a marker.

8. Chicken pulled off his socks and stuffed them inside the unzipped pillow cover of a couch cushion.

9. Buster colored the house.

exhibit b
honestly
we could just leave it
and call it
found
japanese street art
or something

that's not racist btw
he has a fluency of stroke
that both honors and evolves
the ancient art
of japanese calligraphy

when he's
coloring
the fucking house

So I ran back into the room naked and furious, and it was one of those moments when I was like, "damn, I should be on Real Housewives."

But here's the $10,000 question: WHAT DO I DO NOW?

I can't address every unacceptable transgression that just happened. I simply do not have the time. The acts themselves took 30 seconds. Maybe less! The talking it out, cleaning it up, and hugging it out? Sweet monkey butts, that would take at least an hour.

1. Buster hit Chicken. I have a speech for that. The verbiage is positive, acknowledges the extreme feelings that lead to hitting, does not shame those feelings, and I can say it in fourteen languages at this point. It takes about 2 minutes and it ends with a hug.

2. Chicken bit Buster. Okay, I have a speech for that. The verbiage is positive, acknowledges the extreme feelings that lead to biting, does not shame those feelings, but definitely emphasizes how absolutely not okay that behavior is, and that Chicken is a big boy who can use words and that only little babies without words use their teeth to communicate anger or frustration. It also takes about 2 minutes and ends with a hug.

3. Chicken dumped water on the floor. Right, I have a speech for that. The verbiage is positive, you already fucking know everything I'm about to say here, and definitely emphasizes that wasting water is not something we do in this family. It takes about 2 minutes and ends with us cleaning up the water spill together and taking the towels to the laundry hamper. And a hug.

4. Buster colored all over the fucking house. Of course I have a speech for that. The verbiage is... (sigh) (gazes longingly at the wine)... and definitely emphasizes that "markers are for PAPER ONLY. Markers? PAPER ONLY. Not carpet. Not walls. PAPER ONLY. Would you like some paper? No? Okay, let's get some wipes and clean this up together." And a hug.


Before I had Buster, I used to keep track, a sequential running list of every issue that needed to be addressed. My son deserved comprehensive parenting.

But when you double your offspring, that list gets long in a hurry. And as I already said, in the time it takes you to fully diagram the feelings that led up to the last thing, and to reinforce that you love him no matter what that last thing was,  and then to brainstorm future alternatives to the last thing, your child has already done four new things that aren't fucking okay.

Unless you're Magneto and you can pin your children to the refrigerator with humming pot lids and clothes hangers that you flew with your mutant mind powers, your kids never stop moving, even when you're talking. ESPECIALLY when you're talking. And if you try to address every single "thing,"  well... that's how you find yourself explaining what does and does not go in the potty, even as your three-year-old pours Salt Mountain on the kitchen table.

He's justifiably confused. "But I'm done putting your makeup in the potty. That was hours ago. I'm doing salt now." And then you have to be like, "Don't you worry, son. Salt Mountain is on the list. We will get to Salt Mountain. But we're going in order, which means we're up to... let's see... oh yes, 'hand lotion is not for squirting on the floor so you can go ice skating.' Remember? From this morning? Right. Okay, so. What do we use lotion for? Chicken. CHICKEN. Okay, kicking under the table is now on the list. Please stop kicking me, and tell me what we do with lotion."

I'm a writer, so it's no surprise that I lean on words to communicate with my kids. But truth bomb: just because children can talk, hear, and comprehend, doesn't mean words are tools. Like a measuring tape or a whisk, words are tools to us and toys to them.

Words are terribly inefficient tools to build boundaries with young children. I mean, words work... kinda. Like when you use your shoe as a hammer. You'll get there... mostly. But it takes a lot longer and you'll probably fuck up your shoe. Sometimes you just need a fucking hammer.

In the case of boundaries for kiddos 3 and under, "the hammer" is... me. My hands, my presence, my eyes in the sky. There is simply no substitute for Mommy's Looming Shadow when it comes to maintaining some goddamned order and kindness in this family. But damn it, you guys! I'm not trying to crank out the Great American Humorous Essay Collection, or even condition my hair. Can't you kep your shit together for 30 seconds while I put on pants?

Back to the $10,000 question... what do I do now?

Here's what I did.

I interrogated Chicken while Buster thrashed in my lap and yowled. Then I snapped. I screamed, "okay, everybody stop! Everybody stop everything! Chicken, stop biting and dumping water! Buster, stop hitting and screaming and drawing on the house! Everyone! Stop! STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP! AAAAAAAAAHHHH!"



Wow. Okay. I've got a speech for that.



Hey, Katie, you seem really upset. It must be frustrating to feel like you can't leave the room without the children flying at each other like rival alpha squirrels during mating season. And then you come back into the playroom and find a huge mess, two boys who have acquired a taste for human flesh, and you still have no pants on. Plus, you're probably feeling like "oooh nooo, I'm out of control! I'm spoiling my children! I'm doing a terrible job as a mother! I wanted today to be fun but now it's already awful!" Gosh, that sounds hard. I totally understand why it would feel good to scream and yell.

But sometimes after you scream and yell, you feel worse, don't you? Yeah. I know. That's because you love your kids, and yelling at them feels bad. You know that yelling won't fix anything. In fact, it will just make the kids bounce off the walls even harder. You don't want to be a yelling Mommy. You'd rather be a happy Mommy. But when the kids make big messes and hurt each other you can't be happy. You're mad at your kids for not being happy and quiet, and you're sad because you resent your children for not being easy. You're ashamed to wish they were tame. Especially because you love their wildness. Oh yes, you love those wild boys with your whole fierce heart.

Well, what do you think we should do? Sometimes when I feel frustrated and mad and sad, I like to put the children in separate rooms for a little quiet time, and then stand in the kitchen and drink a cold glass of water and write a story. Would you like to do that? You would? Oh, that's great. That's a really great choice. I'm so proud of you. Let's have quiet time, water, and a story.

Oh, and a hug.
Aaaaaaah it's 10:30 and I'm going to bed and I used my blogging time today to re-childproof my home...

(This went super well btw)
(Taking my dresser out of my room)
(Because Chicken stood on it
To open the window
And push out the screen
And look down
4,000 feet
I don't know
I'm bad at estimating
It's
It's a child-killing height
Okay?)
(No but taking this dresser out
Went so smoothly)
(Once I popped that wall off)
(Nbd)

so now this picture of my feet:


I'm sorry. I'm sorry. 
That's just what they look like.

And this unapologetic bathroom selfie, because my hair showed up tonight like Amanda Bynes at my neighborhood shoe-shiners. Everyone was like WHAAAAA and I was like quick, get a picture.


And this Daily Double:


What is, "the thing that vacationing Americans are most likely to cite as a way that 'they just do things differently in Asia, like nobody leans against a wall everyone just does this,'" Alex?

Oh I'm sorry, the answer was "squat." I was looking for "squatting."
Of all the things I say to new parents, there is no more useless piece of advice than "take care of yourself." It's like an old filling, or post-Cheesecake Factory vomit - Nobody is psyched when that comes out of your mouth at a cocktail party. And if it were something I could control, believe me, I would.

By the time I get to "yourself," whatever poor new parents I've cornered will already have stopped listening. I don't blame them. In an instant, I've proven myself an amnesiac, a well-intentioned but incompetent backseat parent who doesn't know that she can't remember the freshly-dug trenches of new parenthood.

I've tuned out those windbag parents a million times.

I've written about this before, how totally shite most advice is. In the case of "take care of yourself," while it's important and true, it's also the kind of lesson a person can only teach him or herself, from the bottom of a very deep hole, or possibly rehab.

Like, you will seriously get a fat shitty ticket if you don't buy new tabs, girl. This is not the DMV punking you. New tabs are like having to show ID to buy Sudafed - stupid, but legitimately a real thing.

Or, wait a tick, this guy reminds you of someone... who is it... oh right, every other guy you've dated who has turned out to be an alcoholic. 

Or, stop, no, don't eat that pizza. Seven glasses of champagne will not magically nullify your allergy to tomatoes.

People can tell you that you have daddy issues and food allergies, but if you're like me, you just charge right ahead sans self-esteem and epi-pen, until eventually you get sick of or on yourself, clean out your refrigerator, buy a planner, and begin again.

As a new parent, you have to run yourself into the ground to the point that you can feel the gravel in your teeth before you hear what your friends have been saying when they chide, "take care of yourself. You cannot pour from an empty cup."

I always thought, "oh, I see. So you think I'm an empty cup? THANKS."
(Yes, you should pity my husband. Pity all my husbands.)

I always took the self-care speech as a criticism of my showmanship, rather than an acknowledgment of the limits of what a human - ANY human - can do on 6 months of 3-5 hours of sleep a night. Rather than simplify my commitments and rest, I added more grooming and socializing to my daily duties. Rather than actually take care of myself, I slapped on a fresh coat of paint over my chipped and crumbling self, with the cunning use of:

1. Pants
2. Mascara
3. Banter

Think of Amanda Bynes near the end. Yeah, that's basically me after someone says, "you need to take care of yourself."

I hope I've never told you to take care of yourself, and unwittingly made you feel weaker, more scrutinized. Like I'd just added yet another thing to your to-do list that will never get done. If I have, I'm sorry.

I understand how you feel. I'm pretty sure I will always feel that way - overcommitted, underslept, ashamed of the dust on my bookshelves, staring up at the behemoth that is Clean Unfolded Laundry Mountain at 2:47 pm, signing up - with the best of intentions - for another committee. But this one is for children, you guys. What, am I not going to sign up to help children? What, am I some kind of heartless bridge troll? I can do it. I've got more to give.

What happens for me is that I end up taking on so much - children, home, projects, community, volunteer work, worky work, important friendships that span the continent - that I have to choose between the burden of committing to do my work, and the burden of guilt for failing to do my work. Guilt is worse because after I carry it around for long enough that I'm ready to put it down, I still have to do the actual work - heave up my commitment on already-exhausted shoulders, and carry it until it's done.

And then there are the surprises - Hand Foot Mouth, for example! Just to pick something out of thin air! Flooded garages and broken ovens and OH BOY have I got some plans for our backyard!

All of this is to say that the things I actually care about have really been slipping - writing well, listening to my children, seeing friends, exercising, scheduling "quality time" with Ryan (yes, it's a euphemism) (for couples yoga) (which is also a euphemism) (for ballroom dancing) (which is also a euphemism). It's time for me to tell myself what only I can say:

You have to take care of yourself.

This is my goal for this week.

ryan
you're toasting the creme brulees this week
i shall now retire
to the drawing room
pronounced
drawr-ing
room
where i shall lie
in repose
upon a chaise
upholstered in finest mattelasse
which i recently learned
is pronounced
matt-lass-SAY
and not
mattle-ASS

She's a little thing, one of those moms who doesn't look like she should be able to lift her studded leather satchel, much less a thirty-pound child. Her son Danny (not his name) is the same size as Buster, and when she lifts him, easily, onto her hip, she looks less like his mother and more like his Cirque du Soleil partner, posed in a precise cantilever, their masses roughly equal.

When she wears leggings, I can see that the round swell of her knee is the broadest part of her leg. When she wears jeans, they hang away from her hips, the denim legs visibly empty.

She drives a silver Lexus SUV.

Her hair is brittle and red, chopped into a blunt chin-length style that she always tries to pull back into a ponytail, and always falls out to surround her face in thick, dry hanks. She is always touching her hair - tucking it, swiping it out of her eyes, clawing back the mane into a thick, stubby, already falling-out tail.

This is the third time I have smelled alcohol, sweet and antiseptic, when she settles next to me at library story time. It's 10:30 am.

Both our boys give zero fucks about story time. They scramble out of our laps and take off for the laundry basket of toys stashed in the corner. Buster finds an airplane; Danny finds a truck. With toys in hand and toddler blinders securely fastened, they lose all awareness of other life on this planet.

She leans in and murmurs, "some days, huh?" Her breath smells like someone with freshly-removed nail polish just browned a creme brulee.

Rum? Vanilla vodka?

Could it be her perfume? A breath mint?

Danny runs back to her and crash-lands on her chest, nearly toppling her. She rocks back and catches herself on one sinewy, goose-bumpy arm. She laughs and wraps her arms around Danny. She rocks him. She bends over to put her face right next to his as he runs his finger along the bumpy bottom of the toy truck.

Oh, wow. Yes, it does look like there's something written there. I think it's the name of the toy company. 

It must be her perfume.

He rolls out of her lap and runs back to the toy basket.

She rolls her eyes and says, "honestly, he was a nightmare this morning."

I nod, "us too. I can't even talk about the shoe drama."

Our eyes follow our boys as they wander the room. "For us, it's the car seat."

"Well, car seat is public enemy #1."

She pulls her hair back. "My friend is pregnant with her third and I think I would kill myself if I were in her shoes."

"Yeah, I can't imagine having a third right now."

"It's freezing in here. Are you cold? I'm freezing." She crosses her arms and tucks her hands between her biceps and chest. The fine blonde hairs on her arms stand straight and glow electric in the morning sunlight.

"I'm not, but I run warm." I don't run warm but it seems like a nice thing to say.

"Can you watch Danny for a second? I'm gonna run to the bathroom." I nod, no problem.

I watch the boys careening across the room and not for the first time I wish they had paint on their shoes, so we could go back and follow their steps and laugh at the switchbacks, the spinning in circles, the random shifts of speed and direction and length of stride. I think, I should tell her that when she comes back. That'll be a funny thing to talk about, our drunken sailor boys.

She's gone awhile. Danny runs to her spot and is surprised to discover her gone. This despite the fact that the child can clearly see the length of the room, could see that spot of thin blue carpet lay bare for every step he took to get there.  It's like he thought, if I simply return, she will be there, the way you can go around a corner in a video game and find a sack of gold coins, collect it, then go back to round the same corner to collect the same sack of coins again. It's amazing to watch children believe in magic without necessarily connecting it to wonder - to them, magic is the way the world works - a car starting with the turn of a key, food coloring, the sight of dirt running from the creases in their palms, falling into the sink and vanishing into the graying water - it's all magic.

Danny turns his big blue eyes on me. "She went to the potty," I say. "She'll be back in just a minute." He sits down in her spot. He's left his truck under a table on the other side of the room and I can see him staring at it. "Do you want to go get your truck?" He looks at me again. "I won't go anywhere. If you want to go get your truck, I'll be here the whole time, and I'll be here when you get back."

He stands up and walks to the truck, checking over his shoulder every few steps to make sure I'm still there. Because he's looking at me, he walks into the table and falls on his butt. He flips onto his belly and stares at me again. Did you do that? I smile, and call out, "you okay?" He grabs the truck and dashes back to me. Just as he arrives, his mom returns.

She smiles. "Hey champ! Still working on that truck?"

When she opens her mouth, I smell it.

If she were a friend I could say, "are you okay," or, "hey, let me take Danny. I have Chicken's car seat in the car. You take the afternoon off, my treat. I'll bring him home at 4," or even, "are you drinking right now? Let's go to my house. I'll drive."

But we aren't friends. Our sons run at the same speed, is all. I have dozens of these women - I smile at Emma's Mom at dropoff. Keller's Mom and I find ourselves standing side-by-side, barefoot at gymnastics class, talking about kitchen remodels. I fetch Ellis's lost shoe and tap the sand out of it, then work his doughy foot back in, press down the velcro strap, flash a thumbs-up to his mom from across the playground. Maya's Mom gives Buster one of Maya's fig newtons.

I call them my co-workers.

Like a hive of blue-shirted analysts in cubicles, they exist in their most distinctive details - was she the one with the long nose? The one with the eyes like a cartoon cow's? The one who hates the word "binky"?

I was taken aback when I saw a Starbucks cup on the shoe cubby at the community center, the boxes checked and scribbled in black marker. Holy shit. Maya's Mom drinks decaf one-pump hazelnut lattes? I wonder how that goes with fig newtons. 

For that drink to have arrived on the white particleboard cubby, Maya's Mom had to order it, which means she got into a car (that she bought? That her husband bought? That her parents gave her? For her birthday?) drove to a Starbucks, ordered a coffee (that she tasted once a year ago when a friend ordered it, and she really liked it and it became her drink? That she's trying for the first time today?) opened her handbag (that she bought from Nordstrom? A market in Nepal? That she found in a box labeled Christmas after the move and couldn't believe it, she thought she'd lost this bag?) pulled out her wallet (does she have a new AmEx? A scratched and bent debit card about to expire? A $20? A $5?) and put her coffee in the cup holder (did she wait for it to cool? Did she order extra hot? Is this a treat? A necessity? A splurge? A routine?)

That drink is the manifestation of Maya's Mom's Full Life Beyond These Walls.

It's not that I thought Maya's Mom was nothing more than a bottomless source of fruit and cake; it's just that we are all so relentlessly the same.

I say, "this is such a tricky age," and across the play gym I see another woman nodding at someone who has just said, "this is such a tricky age."

We gasp in unison when we hear the hollow thunk of a head against the floor.

I say, "I know he's old enough to understand why hitting is not okay..." and she finishes my thought, "... but at least he's only hitting his brother." We laugh. We think it's funny.

In our sameness, our namelessness, the smallest things become our signifiers - A woman named Rachel had a baby and named her Maya (we don't know why, or who after). To a hundred women, she is Maya's Mom (what's her name? Rebecca? Hannah?) To the forty of us at the community center, she is Fig Newton Mom (Do you mean Maya's Mom?) To me, now, she is Hazelnut Latte Mom (You know, Fig Newton Mom? She drinks Hazelnut Lattes.)

Last week I wore a gray tee-shirt that had been washed too many times and you could clearly see the lace edging of my black bra when I stood in the sunshine at the park, watching Chicken and Buster digging holes in the sandbox with my arms crossed over my chest. Am I Black Bra Mom? See Thru Shirt Mom? Hoochie Mama?

If I am, it doesn't hurt my feelings. These names are dispassionate, born of efficiency, not malice.

Still.

I can't call Danny's Mom a name like Drunk Mom. Even if in my mind the words are already there, silent, but present, like a neon sign that hasn't been plugged in yet. Drunk Mom.

If the sight of a coffee cup sends me down a rabbit hole of personal questions that I'm not willing to ask a near-stranger, then the idea of a flask in a handbag on a weekday morning is beyond impossible to pursue out loud.

Not just because toddler story time is not the place to have that kind of talk, not just because alcoholism is a disease that lives in silence and shame, and not just because if I was wrong I would have profoundly offended a person that I genuinely like.

I can't ask her if she's drunk because we are all so relentlessly the same.

I want to scream when I can't get out the goddamned door, too.
I laugh and cuddle my thick, bouncing son, too.
I do what it takes to get through my day, too.
Sometimes I'm ashamed of those things, too.
I am different in public, too.

In the hot silence of my car, I eat a doughnut in two big bites, not even tasting it.
I flip down my mirror to make sure I'm clean. I'm clean.
I walk into toddler gym and wave at Sara's Mom.

After class, it does not occur to me in any practical way to intervene, to save Danny, to stop her from getting behind the wheel.

It's not like she's slurring her speech or dropping her handbag.
It's not like she's hitting him.
It's not like...

She clips her son in and tightens the straps.

I'm relieved when I see her signal appropriately at the light, wait for the retired couple to cross, and then turn right smoothly, soberly.

It's probably breath mints.


My Children Are Abusing Me
Part 1:
No, Seriously.
I Took a Quiz.


I was 5 minutes early to pick up Chicken and I ducked into the school bathroom to pee.

Hunched over on the toilet, limp with the relief of addressing my two core biological imperatives (to pee, and be alone) I looked up at the stall door and saw a flyer slipped into the cracked plexiglass sleeve that usually bears illustrated step-by-step instructions on how to wash your hands.

Today, though, it was a white paper with big purple letters: "Do you need help?"

Yes.

What could this be? A behavioral psychologist? A sandwich artist? A cleaning lady? I needed them all, like, yesterday.

I skimmed the text and realized what it was - bullet points describing common signs of domestic abuse, and a large, bold 800-number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Oh, I don't need that, I thought. Not me.

But as I went back to read the words more closely, I bit my lip and tried to ignore both the knot in my stomach, and the impulse to giggle.

Point after point, I thought yes, yes, yes. 

This was me.

I was in an abusive relationship.

With my children.

This is what the flyer said:

1. Do you:

- feel afraid of your partner much of the time?

Only after 4:30 pm every day.

- avoid certain topics out of fear of angering your partner?

Why do you think I spell things like
(checks over shoulder, turns back, whispers, with fear in her eyes)
C-H-O-C-O-L-A...
(A voice booms from the other room). "I want CANDY.
NOW."

- believe that you deserve to be hurt or mistreated?

It's not that I'm a bad person
I'm just
a bad mother.
A better mother
would have handled this better.
Would have handled him
better.
- wonder if you're the one who is crazy?

No.
I don't wonder.

- feel emotionally numb or helpless?

Chicken poked his brother in the eye
for 20 minutes straight today
while they were clipped into the jogging stroller
and we were 2 miles from home.
There was nothing
nothing at all
to be done about it.
2. Does your partner:

- humiliate or yell at you?

Like, on purpose?
Or accidentally.
Because
yes.

- criticize you and put you down?

I was getting dressed for a party
and I showed Chicken my party dress.
He gave me the up-and-down
shrugged
and said,
"keep trying,
you'll get better."

- treat you so badly that you're embarrassed for your friends or family to see?

Oh, not just friends and family.
Anyone.
God. 
I'm embarrassed 
for God to see
how my kids handle
a walk in the double-stroller.

- ignore or put down your opinions or accomplishments?

what happened, baby?

i knocked it over.

did you see that i just spent 20 minutes folding this?

yeah.
will you please help me pick it up?
no.


- blame you for their own abusive behavior?

Well...
I don't know if this counts but
when I told Chicken that biting his brother was not okay
he said
"I didn't bite him
You did"
and I said
"uh... no I didn't"
and then he said
"but you made me bite him
when you left us in the same room."
So
yeah I don't know
if that counts.

- see you as property or an object, rather than a person?

Yesterday Buster slid his hand
between the buttons of my button-down
grabbed my nipple in a tight fist
and said
"mines."
I was surprised
and so was Jerry
my retired neighbor
who'd been in the middle of recommending
a cleaning lady.
3. Does your partner:

- have a bad and unpredictable temper?

...
...
...
oh I'm sorry
I thought that was a rhetorical question.
But you need an answer to...?
Okay, yes.
The answer is yes.

- hurt you, or threaten to hurt you?

(whispered)
I'm gonna
whap you
in your face,
stumpy.

- threaten to take your children away or harm them?

The other night I told Chicken
that I wouldn't come into the boys' room until morning
unless one of them was really badly hurt.
And he said
"I'll really badly hurt Buster then,
so you can come into our room."
And I said
"okay, let me clarify,"
and then Buster said,
"I kick Chicken,"
and Chicken said,
"no Buster, you have to wait
until tonight."

- destroy your belongings?

it was just a cup
of coffee
but it was everything
to me

4. Does your partner:

- act excessively jealous and possessive?

Like
hypothetically
would the little one
sink his pearly fangs
into the dough of his brother's thigh
if said brother
oh
I don't know
looked at his sippy-cup?
Hypothetically?
Sure.
Sure he would.
If there was juice in it.

- control where you go or what you do?

I mean it's not them
so much as it is
just their needs
and schedules
and little whining voices
and laws about how old you have to be
before you can go into a bar
even if you're with your mom
and clearly not about to order a Jack & Coke
from the stroller.

- keep you from seeing your friends or family?

Airplane tickets to Nana
cost $400 a seat
so
you know
we
call her a lot.


- limit your access to money, the phone, or the car?

Yes
Yes
Yes

- constantly check up on you?

Only when they're awake though.

___

YOU MUST READ THIS BEFORE GOING ANY FURTHER:

1. Domestic abuse is not funny and victims of abuse are not punchlines. People who have fraught relationships with their toddlers (right here) are also not punchlines. I am not making fun of hurt people. If you think I would make fun of hurt people, please stop reading now and never read anything by me again.

2. Unlike domestic abuse, Chicken and Buster's unreasonable demands and moments of insanity are hilarious, and the primary source of humor in this piece. Also, I will be playing the role of the Cathy cartoon in which Cathy fosters two young orangutans who have murdered their birth mother. ACK.

3. I am earnestly curious about the parallels between my relationship with my three-year-old and the abusive behaviors described on that flyer. I have questions about the striking similarities - how are abusers like toddlers? How do mothers characterize their toddlers' behaviors in comparison to how victims characterize their abusers' behaviors? Is this dynamic considered unhealthy between a mother and child? What does the widespread presence of such mother-child dynamics reveal about our cultural values? Do fathers feel victimized in the same way as mothers? Most importantly, how is my relationship with my boys distinct from an abusive relationship? The answer is somewhere in the word "power," but shit, like that narrows it down.

Because I am not a social scientist, I cannot offer answers to those questions. But I am a mother, and a person who is engaged in the kind of dynamic that social scientists find alarming, so I am going to do what I can do, which is walk into this particular bathroom stall, point at a flyer, and ask, "so hey, what's up with that?"

OKAY, NOW YOU MAY READ FURTHER.

TOMORROW.

Because this post is too long so I cut it into two.

Sneak preview: Tomorrow you'll read about why my kids are NOT abusive, and why I'm NOT a victim who's defending them out of fear of what they will do to me if they find out I told.

Also, you have some homework. Tonight you should watch "The Mask of Zorro" if you haven't seen it lately (I say lately because WE HAVE ALL SEEN THE MASK OF ZORRO, stop lying.)

You can watch it for free on Amazon if you have Prime.
Thanks for joining us for this q&a. Our goal is to really crystallize some of the similarities and differences between adults and children - their priorities, fears, hopes, and dreams.

Adult: No problem.

Child: I saw a dog.

You did?

Child: Outside.

Oh! Okay...

Child: It was okay. Kinda brownish.

Adult: That's my dog.

Child: It was just okay. Too brown for me, but...

Adult: That's kind of rude.

Child: No, it's just brown.


Let's dive right in, shall we? First question: what would you do for a juice box?

Adult: Pay a fair market price.

Child: Murder.



What will you do if Donald Trump takes office?

Adult: Flee to Canada and outfit a bunker - this is bad, you guys. REALLY bad.

Child: Will it be Tuesday? Because I have gymnastics on Tuesdays.



How do you feel when riding the bus?

Adult: I don't have "feelings" on the bus. I'm not a sicko. 

Child: I'M THE KING OF THE WORLD!!!!!!!!
Oh my God, can we ride all day? Like all day long?



You're alone behind a closed door in the bathroom for 10 minutes. Your family assumes you are...

Adult: Pooping. Oh, or masturbating.

Child: Dead.


What are you really doing in the bathroom for 10 minutes?

Adult: Pooping.
While masturbating.

Child:
nah
not dead
just chillin
in the sink
slash bath
still wearin a diap tho
and it's growing


What's your biggest beef with your brother?

Adult: Can you call it a "beef" if it's 8 grand I loaned him for his "start-up" that turned out to be a week-long trip to Vegas six years ago? Are we calling that "beef" or is that more along the lines of a fucking "herd of cattle"?

Child: He touched my Tigey. I will never forget this day.




What are you doing in this picture?

Adult: Brushing my teeth.

Child: Sharpening my killer tooth. It's this one. (Points to lower-left incisor.)

i call it
pointy
for it is
my pointy



Tell me about your parents.

Adult: Really? Well... my mom's a nurse, and my dad's a securities broker? And... they like going on cruises... and... Scrabble?

Child: My Daddy is tall and strong and he can lift me all the way up to the ceiling. Mommy reads with funny voices and it's her job to make sure my body stays safe. She has a vagina.



Hey, guess what's for dinner? I made that pasta primavera you loved last week!

Adult: Oh hey, thanks! This looks great.

Child: FUCK you.



You step in a puddle first thing in the morning so you'll be in wet socks and shoes all day. 
First thought?

Adult: GREAT. AGAIN?

Child: GREAT! AGAIN!




What outfit makes you feel like a million bucks?

Adult: Those super-dark jeans, a really great-fitting white shirt with some texture, and a leather jacket.

Child: Doctor coat, cowboy boots. That's it.



Where do you see yourself in ten years?

Adult:  Partner at the firm, married, have a couple of kids, maybe a dog? I don't know.

Child: Is "in ten years" after dinner? Because if so, then "in ten years," I see myself eating a mango popsicle.



What do you pack for a weekend away?

Adult: Change of clothes, pajamas, toothbrush, walking shoes, camera, phone, wallet.

Child: Hello Kitty Band-Aids, binoculars, flashlight, plastic spoon in case of pudding.




What do you do to get ready for swimsuit season?

Adult: I stop eating and drinking, and when I think I am going to die I stand naked in front of a 3-way mirror under fluorescent lights and sob and whip myself like the monk in the Da Vinci Code until I find the strength to go on not eating or drinking until sweater season comes back.

Child: I... put on my swim suit? I guess I don't understand the question. Are you okay?



Finish this sentence: I couldn't live without my...

Adult: iPad.

Child: Skin.
No, wait.
Did he say iPad?
Can I change mine?
iPad.
I didn't know we could put iPad.
iPad. 

POP QUIZ, HOTSHOT:

What is this?



A) a piece of Greek salad 
that Chicken referred to as crunchy spinach, 
licked, 
and then declared 
"huh! Pretty tasty, 
but I prefer the bell peppers."

B) a blankey 
that Chicken lay 
ever-so-tenderly 
atop the slumbering form 
of his new best friend, 
a pitted Kalamata olive named 
Little Olive.

C) 4 days old, 
in a tupperware in my fridge, 
labeled 
"LITTLE OLIVE & BLANKEY 
DO NOT THROW AWAY
because Chicken wants to sit next to his new best friend 
every night at dinner.

D) All of the above.
There were a number of factors, really, that led to me standing outside Whole Foods this morning, talking to Hans.

1. Ryan had to go into the office for a couple of hours.
2. After the great window-smashing of aught-sixteen, we're down to one car, so if I wanted to go anywhere I was doing it on foot with the double stroller.
3. The sun is out and it's a gorgeous day.
4. I'm making a personal goal to get 10,000 steps every day this week.
5. I like seeming like a nice person so I always respond to anything someone says to me in public and then immediately regret it once I realize that I've just signed up for a conversation with a stranger about his penis. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

This morning I piled the boys in the double stroller, added 2 water bottles and a dozen books for drag weight, and we were off for the mile and a half walk to Whole Foods. The sun was out, the brunch spots bustling, the pedestrians groggy with pancake coma and walking four across, and we ambled our way toward the store at a pace that might be described as leisurely if you had enough sleep last night and coffee this morning. Luckily for those pedestrians, I did and I did, so we enjoyed our slow, slow walk.

it's okay
that we didn't
like
bolt
through this

After grabbing the necessities - a bottle of rose, bagels, peanut butter rice bars, and fruit salad, obvs - I stopped at the coffee bar for a fix and a couple of chocolate milks.

Back out on the sidewalk, here's the picture: 

Me, in running shorts and a tank top and sneakers, my jacket tied around my waist
pushing the double stroller with my left hand 
carrying a full cloth shopping bag on my right shoulder
holding an iced coffee in my right hand.

(Long Side Note: This payload is not at all unusual for anyone with 2 kids.

Yesterday I packed a backpack for the zoo with 2 diapers, wipes, a binky, a set of fresh clothes for each kid, 3 water bottles, 4 lunches in tupperware, 4 snacks in ziploc baggies, sunblock, hand sanitizer, sweatshirts, and sun hats. Ryan said, "you are a fucking zoo pro. Look at this bag. This is like what I pack to go hunting."

I didn't know whether to be impressed or depressed.

I just don't find it remarkable anymore. All mothers routinely anticipate and manage an outrageously complex system of logistics, and that's just to go to a place we already know. When we strike out to explore a new park or family farm? And we don't know whether it's stroller-friendly? And we don't know what the food/bathroom situation is going to be? Damn, you guys. We pack for every possible contingency, including the biblical apocalypse.

This picture of a mother doing her best Grand Canyon Donkey Slave impersonation, you see it everywhere you go. Or at least everywhere I go.

That's just how we roll now - sometimes I feel like a badass; sometimes I just feel like an ass. Regardless, it's my life.)

Anyway, I'm outside Whole Foods peeling a banana for Buster, and Hans walks by.

He tosses his shoulder-length mane of straight, reddish 80's-villain hair and says, "you know, women are just incredible."

Well played, Hans. You have my attention.

I say, "oh! Well... I don't know..."

He says, "really, you're amazing. Look at you, carrying that load like it's nothing. You must be strong. Are you going far?"

I say, "oh, just a few miles." (I lie automatically and don't know why I say it. Probably to seem more impressive. If Hans thinks I'm a hero who am I to contradict him?)

He shakes his head and comes back toward me so he's no longer calling out to me, but rather speaking at regular volume. "I don't have any kids, but I'm a hairdresser so I know a lot about women."

"Oh!" I say, nodding with vigor, as if this actually makes a lot of sense even though there's a small voice in my head that says "ew." 

Hans sees a lot of women, I'll grant him, and touches them often and intimately, sure, and knows what these women are willing to share with a pseudo-stranger who they think is probably gay and therefore not a threat, yeah okay, I'll go along with that. But I don't know if... whatever, Katie, you're overthinking this. He thinks you're a powerful mother goddess. Let it slide. 

"You know," he continues, leaning in conspiratorially, "I'm 54 now, and I'm about to go in for a vasectomy."

HELLO. I untie my jacket from around my waist and put it on. His gaze follows my zipper as I close the jacket to the chin.

"At my age, I don't want to have a baby, you know?"

"Sure, sure," I say, crossing my arms in the 70-degree sunlight and pushing the stroller behind my back. "Babies are really demanding for parents of any age."

"Besides," he steps in closer and swats my arm lightly, playfully. "If I get insecure and want some kids, I can always find a middle-aged woman with kids who's without a man. I hear there are a few of those out there."

Hanssayswhatnow?

"I..." It doesn't matter what I say because Hans is just pleased as punch at his hilarious joke about joining a pre-bred family so he can feel like a big man.

"Or you could adopt," I say, as if this is a real conversation.

"At my age, they wouldn't let me rent-to-own," he says, and then I black out for a minute as I realize what he just said. When I come back from the darkness, he's reiterating that he could just, "find a lady with kids", "maybe in the Midwest somewhere", "who'd be grateful."

I have nothing to say, so he pivots.

"How old are you, 34?"

Wow. Strong move, Hans. Also, rookie mistake. If you're going to guess a woman's age out of the blue, you ALWAYS give a number 10 years younger than her physical appearance suggests. It would not have been inappropriate for you to ask if I could vote and/or drive yet.

"31," I say.

"Where do you get your hair cut?" He asks, reaching out to touch my ponytail.

I lean my head away from him and say, "I don't," which is both true and a clear signal that I don't want to talk about my personal appearance with this man.

He says, "you've got really thick hair."

I say, "yes."

He says, "I bet it hangs."

I say, "I... uh..."

He says, "let me give you my card. I've been hanging out with a lot of Asians lately and so I know how to make hair move. I don't work out of a salon, so, you can just call and we'll..." he finished his sentence with a smile and a waggle of his eyebrows.

I say, "oh great, thanks." I tuck the card in the waistband pocket of my running shorts, revealing, for a moment, a strip of bare stomach skin. He doesn't pretend not to look.

He's still talking about his magic Asian hair-moving technique as I walk away. I can hear him say, "Japanese," and "scissor," as I turn the corner.

It was one of those conversations that took 4 minutes or less, so it ended before I could really understand how screamingly creepy it was.

The whole walk home I squinted into middle-distance, trying to pinpoint why I felt so icky. There on the sidewalk outside the store it was harmless chit-chat, and the boys were squirming, and like a pebble dropped into a pond the initial impact was nothing more than a droplet. 

Now that I've transcribed the exchange, however, the reason for the ick is crystal clear.

1. He opened with a compliment that he knew I'd be flattered to receive, but unthreatened by - if he'd told me he liked the fit of my shorts, I would have ignored him, and walked away checking car windows to make sure he wasn't following. But he complimented my parenting, and my strength, and that made me feel like I was with a friend who respected me.

2. He asked me if I was going far. Why did he need to know that? Sure, it flows smoothly from his observation that I'm carrying a lot of stuff, but looking back, I realize that question was the first little red flag for me, the first faint whiff of stink under the perfume. I realize, also, that may have been why I lied about how far I was going.

3. He said he knows a lot about women, and told me that he's a hair stylist - a signifier that he's on my team and not a threat.

Also, shut up you're dumb. You know a lot about women from shampooing their hair and chatting about their boyfriends/scalp treatments? You don't know shit. It's like when someone says, "you can tell me; I can totally keep a secret," and you immediately know that motherfucker is live-tweeting. When someone says "I know a lot about women," that usually means he thinks he knows a lot about how to work women.

If he'd said, "I have three sisters, so I know that I don't know very much about women, but I know to stay out of your way," that would be a fucking truth bomb right there.

4. Out of the blue, he brought up his upcoming vasectomy

I can't even... it's... I just... 

right?

Interesting, in hindsight, that he mentioned his genitals so early on in the conversation, but only to let me know that he would be neutralizing them shortly. Everything about this man said, "I'm doing my best to make you comfortable with me." But the only thing you need to know about how that statement made me feel is that I stepped back and covered my body with a jacket. My mind was slow in processing what he said, but my body said, "nope," and suited up.

5. He stepped in and touched my arm. I did not like that, so I pretended it did not happen.

6. Then he dropped that hideous joke (not once, but twice) about saving a single woman with children if he ever feels insecure. I mean, okay, a lot of people have children because they're insecure, but I don't think most of them are aware of it until much later. There's something profoundly icky about a person who says, "I need an ego boost so I'm going to get some vulnerable, small people to need me for awhile." 

Also, for someone who opened our conversation with the ebullient revelation that women in general are "incredible," "amazing," and "strong," this bitter bite of mean humor sure takes a 180. Ironically, single parents of both sexes are probably the most incredible, amazing, and strong people I can think of.

Also, in that moment on the sidewalk, wasn't I just a manless woman with her children? A "single" mother who he'd flattered and engaged? Was he narrating our exchange in real time?

Also, isn't a mother alone with her children the most vulnerable of creatures, most willing to pay the price for safety, whatever it is?

7. Three words: rent. to. own. I want to cry rage tears right now just thinking about how a person could talk so casually about a homeless child, think it's funny to liken a leased Mazda to a baby who has no family.

8. Then came all that business about my appearance, guessing my age accurately rather than fawningly, the subtle put-down about my hair: "I bet it hangs." Thanks? Was that a sales pitch or something more personal, a reminder that I wasn't so great after all?

9. He reached out to touch my hair and I rejected him, again, not consciously. My mind was still catching up, doing the multitasking work of conscious human socializing, watching traffic, interpreting physical and verbal signals, anticipating the direction of the conversation and my potential responses. But my skin and bones had one job: not to be touched by a creepy stranger. My body said "aw hell no," and initiated an override. This was the point in the conversation where I began to shorten up, check out, and disengage.

10. Then all that vague, non-industry talk about Asians and making hair move. It didn't sound real, but at the time I assumed it was just because he was a crappy hairdresser. Now... I don't know. 

His card is cheap stock, and bears only his name and phone number.

I googled him and found his Facebook page, but no reviews of his work as a hairdresser.

Probably because he's a crappy hairdresser who says fucked-up inappropriate things about women, children, and his own penis.

Maybe because he's not a hairdresser at all. 

Yesterday, the day I packed the comprehensive zoo backpack, I leaned on the fence at the wolf enclosure. An adult white wolf lay on a hill, watching me, and I, emboldened by the iron that lay between us, made steady eye contact with him.

Chicken ran by, his red tee-shirt a beacon, and the wolf turned his head to follow my soft son, oblivious in the sunshine, just out of reach.




werner herzog once said
"i believe the common denominator
of the universe
is not harmony
but chaos,
hostility,
and murder."

which
okay
a)
we get it werner, you hail from the land of schopenhauer and despair
b)
we get it werner, you also direct operas
c)
we get it werner, it was really hard
when nickelodeon passed
on your animated kids' series
about a rat
who lives in a slaughterhouse

but
i mean
also
look at a wolf sometime
watching a baby
and tell me werner doesn't have
a good fucking point

If you're interested in reading more about the importance of trusting your gut when someone gives you the creeps, I heartily recommend Gaven de Becker's chilling, informative, and remarkable book, The Gift of Fear.