Thursday, November 28, 2013

Type


Mae is 11 years old, wears size 10 shoes, stands five feet four and weighs the same as me (she has Capron cow bones, I have Lavoie bird bones).  She is easy in her changing body and Jennifer Lawrence gorgeous.  If you looked up lovely in the dictionary you’d find her hooded Eskimo eyes and Mona Lisa smile.

The kids are in three different schools with three different calendars.  This Thanksgiving week, Mae and Mihiretu were off school, Lana in.  That made for a couple of Mae-Mihiretu-Mom days.

We went to the mall on Monday and while Mae was selecting jeans and Mihiretu was riding the escalators shrieking like a pterodactyl, something struck me. 

“You know who’s really going to tease you when you get a boyfriend?” I asked, handing Mae a pair of size 27s.

“Who?” Mihiretu asked as he skidded into Mae.

I nested a hand in his curls.  “Mihiretu Capron, that’s who.”

Mae groaned and gave me a half-concealed smile.  Mihiretu hopped from foot to foot in delight, thrilled with anticipation.

The next day Mihiretu and I (and Sunny the Dog) walked Mae to a friend’s house in the neighborhood.  Coming towards us down our wooded lane hobbled an elderly man, his neck frozen into a permanent stoop.  He walked a small, long-haired dog.

“Is that a cat?” asked Mihiretu in his version of sotto voce (not sotto at all).

“That’s a dog.”

We passed the man.  He gave us a friendly nod as Sunny lost her mind barking at his cat.  Just as I was pulling her back into line, giving her my “I’m the boss, not you” lecture, Mihiretu said, again in his “quiet” voice, “Hey, Mae.”

“What?” she said, looking at him sideways, already knowing some mischief was coming her way.

“Dat guy yo’ type.”  His eyes sparkled, he wore a Cheshire grin.

“He is not my type!”  She flailed her arms in indignation but she, too, was grinning.

“Oh yeah, Mae, he yo’ type.”

Where did he hear about types?  Probably the same place he heard about “upper cut punch” (I gonna give you an uppa cut PUNCH!).  No matter, the kid’s got a killer instinct for what makes people tick.

And, Mae, bless her, laughed along with us, adolescent though she may be, far more poised than I ever remember being at that age, room in her heart for a small ridiculous boy.  As for her type?  I’m thinking he’s going to be pretty cool.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

1 2 3, Magic


As I’ve reported again and again, this last school year was a challenging one for us.  By summer, we were all a wreck.  Enforcing discipline with Mihiretu had become nearly impossible; the smallest correction would send him into hysterics.  And because we couldn’t realistically discipline Mihiretu, we really couldn’t apply different rules to the girls.  Home was chaos.

With every day of summer vacation, Mihiretu relaxed.  With no institutional triggers, remnants of the orphanage, he was no longer in fight-or-flight.  By July, we saw our opening.

While I’m an ardent reader – I carry books with me everywhere, to meals, to brush my teeth, to bed – I hate self-help books.  I buy them, particularly child-rearing books, read a few pages and then they join the pile on my bedside table, never to be touched again.  The reasons for this are two-fold; my reading time is my pleasure time – I don’t want to be working - and I hate being told what to do (even if it’s what I need to hear).

That said, this summer Ben and I read a book called “1, 2, 3, Magic!”  Exclamation point aside, the title is accurate.  It is magic.

The basic premise is this: you sit  your kids down and reiterate the rules of the house.  Then you explain that the first time they break a rule, a parent will call “One”.  No explanation, no discussion.  The second time, “Two”.  And, the third time, you guessed it, “Three”.  At this point the child takes a time-out in their room – for as many minutes as years they are old.  When they come out, everyone moves on, no discussion, no guilt.  Very simple, too simple, it seems.  But, like I said, magic.  Within a week of implementing the plan, we were living a different – and far more peaceful – life.  There is no more arguing, no more screaming, no more teasing, no more bloody scratches etched on small faces.  The kids abide by the rules and everyone’s happier for it, particularly the kids.

Mihiretu runs down the hall, shrieking, really just to hear himself shriek.  “Mihiretu, that’s one.”  Ten minutes later, Mihiretu chases the dog.  “Mihiretu, that’s two.”  Five minutes after that, Mihiretu climbs over the couch.  “Mihiretu, that’s three.  Here’s the timer.  Go to your room.”  No parental yelling, and then, beautiful thing, I have six minutes of silence.

It’s a bit baffling.  When we tried time-outs before, Mihiretu would – I’m not kidding - climb out his window, run around the side of the house and make faces at us through the glass door.  This time around, maybe because the consequences are clear, and we’re so even in the delivery of those consequences, he goes to his room and he stays there.

My favorite part, I have to say, are the howls of frustration when the kids are counted into a metaphorical corner.  Lana sasses me – “Lana, that’s one.”  “But, Mom, I was only –“   “Lana, that’s two for arguing.”   “This counting rule is so stupid!”  “That’s three, take nine in your room.”  “Aaaargh!” as she stomps down the hall.  Extremely satisfying.

Now when Mihiretu knows he’s broken a rule he’ll look at me out of the corner of his eye to see if I’ve spotted the infraction.  If I count him, he’ll wave his open palms and say, “Oh, sawwy, Mama, sawwy” and skitter away.  This is the kid who when we’d ask him to stop (screaming, slapping, swearing, spitting), he’d yell “Or what?”  We’ve found our what.

I enjoy being with my kids now – something I couldn’t honestly say when we were deep in the pit of despair last year.  We’re having so much more fun because we’re not spending our time arguing, redefining our boundaries at every turn.  Ben and I are Charles-in-Charge and it feels so good.

Next book down on the dusty stack by my bedside? “Cesar’s Way”.  Watch your back, Sunny, watch your back. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Utility Room


Our lives this past year haven’t been easy.  Mihiretu had a terrible time in kindergarten at the public school, ergo Mae and Lana had a terrible time at said school.  Your brother throwing himself to the black-top in screaming terror during an all-school fire drill isn’t a recipe for social success it turns out.  Therapy all the way around.

This year we find ourselves in three different schools.  Mae started at the public middle school last week.  Lana found a safe spot among some key friends at a small private school in Fairfax.  And Mihiretu is at a Steiner-inspired school in Sausalito; calming colors, no bells.  While this has proved to be logistically difficult (three kids, three start times, three end times, with miles between them), they seem infinitely happier.  They each have space to be themselves in an environment that suits them.

I started a business in June.  A bit counterintuitive, I realize.  Three young kids, one of whom has suffered trauma, therapy appointments to coordinate.  But I’m finding this work is giving me a little space of my own.

I have always sewn.  I come from a long line of seamstresses.  My maternal grandmother emigrated from Romania to support her family as a seamstress in the New World.  She ended up having three children in quick succession and succumbing to depression and pneumonia in short order but no matter.  She sewed.  My mother sewed.  I sew.

I make quilts, I make clothes.  Most recently, I’ve gotten into upcycling.  I find old cashmere sweaters at Goodwill, haggle with the cashiers (“There’s a hole here under the arm and it’s quite pilly?  Could you come down from $12?”) and bring the buggers home to wash them, felt them, cut them up and make something new.  Blankets, scarves, hats, sweater-coats.  I find vintage quilt-tops at flea markets.  These are the pieced together beginnings, not yet a blanket, abandoned as much as a century ago.  I clean them up, mend them, then finish the job some long ago granny started.  I layer the top with batting and a back and hand-quilt it.  A labor of love – it takes forever – but I adore it.  I carry a basket with me everywhere and pull out the current quilt to work on at odd moments – playdates, school pick-ups, wherever.  I make messenger bags out of vintage European grain sacks, little girl dresses out of used men’s t-shirts, dog bowl stands out of old wooden fruit crates, summer dresses out of antique German nightdresses.

In May, a store opened in Fairfax, our little town.  It’s called The Garage and it’s a design collective.  Housed in an old Volkswagen repair shop (hence the name), it’s a m√©lange of different work; handmade jewelry, handcrafted leatherwork, vintage finds salvaged and repaired, on and on.  And now, in the midst of this loveliness, is The Utility Room.  That’d be me.  I work behind the counter a few hours a week but mostly my work is finding and making.  I’m busier than I’ve probably ever been – a typical evening might find me simultaneously packing school lunches, ironing a t-shirt dress and rewiring an old rotary phone for resale.  I’m busy but I’m happy.  The kid’s world changed for the better and so did mine.

I think a lot about Virginia Woolf’s idea of having a room of one’s own.  I don’t actually have that.  I have a high counter the length of my living-room that’s home to my sewing machine, my serger, my computer, my cashmere, my quilt-tops.  I don’t have a physical room but suddenly I have mental room, I have the Utility Room.  I have a thing that’s just mine.  I’m not just the support staff for Ben and the kids.  I love being a mother.  I love it more than anything.  But I also love having work that’s my own.

I got my first paycheck recently since my last acting check in 1999.  I used some of it to buy shop-girl shoes, a pair of bright blue clogs.  Work shoes.  Because, between drop-offs and pick-ups, between Trader Joe’s and laundry, between making beds and making dinner, there’s a little slice of time that’s mine, that’s work. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Little Surfer, Little Girl


We just got back from two weeks at Stinson Beach.  I’d call it a vacation but Ben, per our agreement, was commuting daily to work and I was, for the most part, on my own with the kids so instead, perhaps, I should call it parenting on location.

I love Stinson.  I grew up on that beach.  Ben and I have corresponding pictures of our childhood selves on those sands, him waving a seagull feather, me clinging to my brother’s back.  When I think “beach”, the muted blues and greys of Stinson are what come to mind.

Our first week at the beach this year was populated with friends.  By the second week, we were ready for surf camp.

That Sunday I walked over to Live Water Surf Shop to sign up.  If you’ve ever seen a bumper-sticker of a shark with a red line through it, that’s Live Water.  It’s a Marin institution and is these days owned by Brenna and Pete Gubbins.

And here’s where we enter the magical, mythical realm of high school.  Pete went to Tam High in Mill Valley with Ben and me.  I spent my twenties in Los Angeles being fairly anonymous and disconnected from my childhood.  I was the present me only.   And though I’ve been back in Marin for well over ten years, I still find the overlay of adolescence and present life confusing and fascinating.  Keep in mind I married someone from high school but Ben and I met at our ten year reunion; we weren’t friends way back when.  He was new to me and old.  A lot like the rest of these people I continue to bump into.

The surf camp, it turns out, is run by a guy named Glenn Whitaker.  A guy I also went to high school with though, like most of these people, probably never talked to.  I was shy, shocking as that may seem now.  I was an excellent student, I was afraid of my father, I was cautious.  Which means that I remember these people way better than they remember me.  I sat back and watched behind a curtain of dishwater blond hair while they led their raucous high school careers.

Ben, Pete, Glenn, these were all the cool guys.  I don’t think I’ve ever been cool.  Oh, sure, I’ve come into my own, I’m comfortable in my skin, I inhabit myself quite nicely now.  But I don’t know that that’s cool.  It’s just me.  I’ve fully embraced my brainy, confessional, emotive self.  Which is good, but not cool.  “Cool” is just not where my thermostat is set, as much as I would sometimes like it to be.

Surf camp started.  My kids popped up onto their feet by their second or third ride.  I sat on the sand, swathed in sun hat and sarong and watched.  It was hilarious and inspiring, watching these little people catch waves, wipe out.  By Thursday, I wanted to try.

Now here’s where the past bumps up against the present.  I wanted to get in the water, try to stand up on a board, see what it felt like.  I love that quote “Use your body any way you can, don’t be afraid of it or what others may think of it”.  I don’t have a whole lot of shame or fear these days and I do have a whole lot of curiosity.  So that’s the present. 

And then there’s the past.  There’s the getting in the water with the cool guy from high school, undoubtedly failing, undoubtedly exposing my tremendous uncoolness.  If I could ask my fifteen-year-old self if this was a good idea she would say no fucking way.  And then swing her hair back in front of her face.

The present won.  I got in a wet-suit, I hauled a board out into the water.  I spent two days getting absolutely pummeled by waves, by humiliation, while my children sailed by me hanging ten.  My body felt huge, impossible to coordinate.  I was trying to speak Japanese armed only with “Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto”.  But again and again, I manhandled the board back through the white water and gave it another shot.  Eventually I managed to stand up for a total of three seconds.  I’m not sure if I tamed the wave or if it tamed me but it was a sort of victory.

I did all this in front of the cool guy, with the help of the cool guy, who in the end turned out to be quite a cool guy.  And me?  Decidedly not cool.  But a little brave.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Korean Spa


A couple weeks ago, I rearranged therapist appointments and school tours, postponed insurance claim calls, ditched the dishes and the laundry, left the suburbs behind and ventured into San Francisco for something different.

I’m not generally a spa person.  I’ve had about five pedicures in my life, I prefer my massages medicinal, I don’t like the feeling of someone waiting on me in that way, pampering me, simply because I’m paying for it.  Perhaps because I spent my twenties waiting on people because they were paying me for it.  It all makes me highly uncomfortable.

This spa, though, this Korean spa to which I was heading, is, I’d heard, not about pampering.  That theory proved true.

I embarked on this adventure with my friend, Mary.  There are probably only a handful of people with whom I could imagine spending three hours naked and Mary is one of them.  She is six feet tall and the definitive ectomorph.  Tan, blonde, gi-orgeous.  While I’ve often compared myself to Mary physically and found myself wanting (once she chopped her hair short and dyed it brown, almost my exact cut, and I found myself thinking, “Oh, look, it’s me, only taller and thinner”), she is a person who is at home in her body.  Which I suppose I am, too, most days.  Being naked with someone like that is a lot like being naked alone, except you can chat.

We disrobed in the clean, chlorine-scented locker room.  Dressed only in our spa-provided bracelets (Mary’s said “4”, mine “5”), we sank into the hot tub while we waited for our scrub appointments.  As we sloshed from hot tub to cold plunge, we whispered compliments about each other’s breasts (“God, Mary, you look like you’re sixteen.” “Your boobs are so full and nice, Liz.”).  Yes, guys, this is what ladies talk about.

Soon a squat, middle-aged Korean woman uniformed in black granny undies and bra (truly, that’s the uniform) entered the bath area. 

“Four?” she called in heavily accented English.  Mary dutifully followed her, smiling at me over her bare shoulder.

Soon enough, another squat, middle-aged Korean woman in requisite black undies and bra arrived.

“Five?” she asked gruffly.

I followed her into a small curtained annex off the bathing area.  She gestured for me to lie down on a massage table covered in heavy plastic. 

“Down,” she said.  Guessing, I lay face down.  A moment later, I was attacked.  Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of her hand in some kind of glove.  It was a hybrid shower-glove/brillo-pad/oven mitt.  She held me down with one mitt and scrubbed me with the other, exactly how I might imagine her getting a stain out of her living-room carpet.

This went on for at least a half hour, her furious scrubbing.  Once she’d finished a body part, she’d dump a bucket of water on it.  There was no talking as we didn’t share a language, only her hands flipping me over and scrubbing.  Legs, back, belly, breasts, arm, armpits, everything.  I was a little concerned she was taking off more than the desired one layer of skin.  I was silently saying farewell to my nipples.  And I was laughing.  Forty-two year-old white suburban mom naked on a plastic sheet, totally at the mercy of a determined Asian woman in black underwear.

Upon release by my Brillo-mitted captor, I reunited with a dazed and pink Mary.  Then, again, two more Korean ladies entered the bath.  “Four?” one said.  “Five?” said the other.  Mary and I had time for one shared eyebrow raise before we were ushered into separate, tiny massage rooms. 

This Korean lady, my masseuse, was younger, smaller and infinitely more smiley than my scrubber.  She gestured for me to lie down on yet another massage table, this one, happily, covered with a sheet – cotton not plastic.

I closed my eyes and listened to the plink-plonk of the music coming from a small boom-box by my head.  And then I was attacked again.

Somehow, this sweet little lady had massive, super-human hands.  She kneaded my thighs and my calves with such force that I worried that my kneecaps would splinter. 

“You walk?” she asked.

“Um,” I squeaked, “Yeah.  I run.  In the hills.”

“Maybe no walk,” she said.  “Tight.”

It wasn’t until she got to my upper back and I felt the air forced from my lungs that I realized that what I had taken for hands were actually feet.  I listened over the sound of my wheezing breath and could hear her hands sliding on metal, what would later prove to be a horizontal pole above us.  She was walking on me.

After thirty minutes, she finally jumped off the table and switched to her hands.  I fell immediately asleep.  Or maybe I passed out.

When I came to and exchanged smiling nods with the Walker, I found Mary in the hall.  She looked about how I felt, beaten and raw.

We found a ramen shop next door for lunch and we toasted our shared Sapporo, grateful for our intact bones.  Mary confessed that her rib might be out.

I felt exorcised.  If the purpose of a massage, of a spa, is stress relief, this was mission accomplished.  I drove back over the Golden Gate skinned and mellow.  Maybe it was the scrubbing, maybe it was the walking, maybe it was just the laughing.  Whatever it was, I needed it.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Crab


I am a person who is rarely still.  I’m industrious, I’m a multi-tasker; I’m the mother of three children.  In the rare moments I’m sitting, I’m eating and reading or eating and talking or sewing and listening to NPR or folding laundry and watching trash TV; there is always something being accomplished.

The exception to this rule is the first half-hour of my day.  That, ideally, is spent on my back, gazing through the skylight, watching the sunlight creep down the trees, sorting through my dreams.  My dreams are vivid and they are many.  Lately I’ve spent a lot of the night apartment-hunting in LA until I realize, whoops, I’m married, have three kids, three cats and a dog - a studio apartment is probably not going to do the trick.  When I finally emerge into consciousness, I am exceedingly vulnerable; if I’m down this is when I’ll feel it, if something is bothering me, this is when it’ll come up.  I am, as Ben says, a crab without its shell.

If I start my day in first gear, Mihiretu starts his in fifth.  From the moment he opens his eyes, he is running, he is talking, he is shouting, he is asking questions and making demands. This morning, he asked me in quick succession if I loved him more than Sunny, if it was the weekend, if I had any dreams, if we were going to walk to school, if we were having tacos for dinner, and if I loved him more than the IPad.  Sometimes, if he’s not in a great mood, he might call the sleeping dog onto the bed (where she is forbidden to go), he might shriek just to shriek and when asked to stop because his sisters are sleeping, shriek some more.  If Lana makes it to my bed first, they will fight over my hands – who gets to hold which one.  For someone who’s hardest moment of the day is leaving her bed, this kind of energy is a lot for me to handle.  I am the raw, shell-less crab and he is a sharp stick.

For as early as I rise, I guess I’m not a morning person.  If I had my way, the kids would wake up two hours later than I do – by that time, armed with coffee and warmed blood, I’d have the fortitude to face them.  I love them, these children, I love the fresh day, I love this life of mine but sometimes all I want to do is sleep – escape down the dark, velvety tunnel of my subconscious, float there, dream.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Littlest Bachelor


Ben was away this week.  His absence somehow corresponded with the week a month the babysitter takes off and (how? how?) the aide’s car breaking down.  No Ben, no babysitter, no aide.  I relaxed my standards a bit.

Usually, six o’clock finds us sitting down to dinner at a candlelit table, giving our high points and low points (often pitching our voices above Mihiretu’s but no matter).  This last week it found us (minus Ben) draped on the couch, Mihiretu with earphones and Yu-Gi-Oh on the iPad, the girls and I dug deep into trashy television.

Sunday night was the Golden Globes.  Great fun for all, plus a teaching moment when Jodie Foster came out (me: “Girls, do you know what just happened?”  Mae:  a firm “Yes” and then “What?” me: long explanation of Jodie Foster’s path, the meaning of an open secret, etc.)

Tuesday night we watched the tivoed “The Bachelor”.  Please hold your calls and letters – I know, terrible, terrible thing for young girls to watch.  Ridiculously sexist, absurdly unrealistic view of love and marriage, basically a female orgy with one very lucky guy in the middle of it.  The girls have received a long mom lecture on my opinions on relationships, on romantic ideals versus true everyday love, on how this TV show is total horseshit but also so very fun to watch.

So we were watching, the girls and I, chomping our popcorn, sipping our wine (okay, that was me), discussing how very articulate was the one-armed girl in addressing her disability, when Mihiretu, settled in the crook of my arm, peeled off his headphones and pushed the iPad aside.  This, usually, would be when the happy scene crumbled.  Mihiretu, tired at the end of the day, at loose ends while the girls and I watch something on TV in which he has no interest.

But this boy, who takes his television straight-up animated, watched raptly, silently, for a good five minutes before asking, “That girl gonna get a wose, Mama?”  I said that, no, it looked like that girl was not going to get a rose, that girl was headed home, it seemed.  “Good,” he said with a quick nod of his head, “I no like her.”  I had to say, I agreed.

He finished out the show with us.  It was utterly delightful.  Later, when I told Ben, he said, of course, it’s about romance with lots of pretty ladies, right up his alley.  Plus, all that cleavage.  Really, what’s not to love?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

What Doesn't Kill You


We five Caprons, do not, thank God, live in 1930’s Germany, or, thank God, Rwanda in the nineties, or, thank God, Syria in 2013.  We do, however, seem to have a lot more discomfort than most of our direct peers.  Our direct peers, of course, are highly educated, highly privileged, gorgeous, fit, middle-aged white folks.  They, like we were just a few years ago, are pursuing their careers, raising their children, sure working to varying degrees to keep finances afloat, to keep marriages afloat, but generally, life here in Marin is pretty fine.  Our problems are first-world problems, to be sure.

We five Caprons live in the perfect storm that is Hurricane Mihiretu (and yes, I include him in the number being oppressed by his behavior, much of which he can’t control).  We are awakened at odd hours by screaming and tantrums, we are in constant terrorist negotiations, we’re giving everything we have to this needy boy and it’s still not enough.  No it’s not Hitler’s Germany but it’s tough.

I’ve been feeling guilty lately about how all this domestic conflict is affecting the girls.  They didn’t ask for another sibling, they certainly didn’t ask to be tortured by said sibling.  But I heard something recently that gave me a bit of perspective.  It was NPR, part of the white noise of my day, I have no idea of the context but here’s the essence: Just because it’s not making you happy doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

I think we privileged white people get really caught up in our own happiness.  If we’re not happy, we’re failing.  I’ve been feeling like quite the failure lately.  But this mothering I’m doing, this non-stop chore of loving a boy that often does everything he can to repel that love, it is worth doing.  And, for all my faults, I am a good mother.  I have that to give to the world. 

A friend read a recent post and shared her experience of growing up with an adopted Columbian brother – a boy who came to her family at six with plenty of history.  She said that, yes, being his sister has had its challenges, but that the experience has taught her so many things, deepened her in a way that she might not have been otherwise.  She’s a doctor now and she said that her brother taught her compassion, which is essential in her work, essential to her life.

Perhaps my girls are learning lessons they wouldn’t have learned had we not brought Mihiretu into our lives.  We are giving them depth if nothing else.  They know what hardship is – theoretically from Mihiretu’s story before he came to us and realistically from living with him.  They know, first-hand, what malnutrition is, what global inequity is, that really hard things can happen, even to kids.

So maybe we five Caprons are a bit miserable at the moment.  Maybe we’ll continue to be for years.  But maybe that’s not the worst thing that could happen to a person.