Sunday, November 21, 2010

It's On the Tip of My Tongue

The stranger purses her lips and then shakes her head sadly. Well, I guess I didn’t make an impression on you.”

When she says this, we are standing in the busy playground across from Diva’s school. I’m happily passing a sunny late fall afternoon chatting with other parents I don’t yet know. Except that this one insists that I do know her. I suppose she may even be right.

Diva’s bumpy transition into kindergarten is long behind us; in fact, she now has so many friends that she somewhat intuitively splits them into camps, playing with one set one afternoon, and another set the next. But as she ricochets from swing to slide to playhouse and back, a ping pong ball of joy, I find myself playing a game of my own. I call it “Who Am I Talking To?

In theory, I should be good at this game. I’ve always been a people person by nature, the boy who joined eight or nine clubs in high school and spent as much time socializing as studying in college. To this day, I’m a living Chatty Cathy, maintaining running jokes with the barista at my local Starbucks and making sure to ask my favorite cabbie how his kids have been doing since I saw him last six months ago.

So why am I so nerve-wracked now as The Hubby and I dive into this community of elementary school parents? Because I can’t remember any of their names.

Maybe it was after I turned 40, or maybe it was about the time I taught my 2,000th  college student, but some kind of fullness has overtaken my cranium. If doctors were to do an MRI of my temporal lobe, I’m convinced they’d find it illuminated with a blinking sign: NO VACANCY. I can get around this problem with my students more easily, because the university provides me a handy list of their names, accompanied by teeny little photos. But I have no such cheat sheet for my fellow parents, nice folks whom I’ve presumably met at my town’s playgrounds, libraries, concerts, puppet shows, matinees, flu clinics, and fireworks displays in the five years leading up to Diva’s entrée to Kindergarten.

I’m not entirely hopeless; I can do reasonably well if I meet someone with an unusual moniker, like the mom I know who has an apostrophe smack dab in the middle of her first name. But the Susans and Mikes of the world have a significantly harder time claiming their places in my mental rolodex. If you’re a Bob, I’m just as likely to call you Scott or Paul, unless you have some helpfully memorable disfigurement for me to cling to. If I can associate a name with a particularly vivid visual—say you have a third eye, or an exoskeleton like a lobster—I’m sure to remember it forever. Otherwise, not so much.

I have tried discreetly typing the names of fellow parents into my i-phone as soon as they walk away, but I find that when I later review the list, some of my clever notes call to mind no picture at all. It’s like my brain is mocking me: nice try, mister.

What makes it worse is how many parents seem to remember my name. I try to tell myself that there are good reasons for this discrepancy. For one thing, I’m a Room Parent (one of three who organize fundraising events for Diva’s class), so the other parents all get e-mails from me. Moreover, The Hubby and I are the only two-Dad pair in our daughter’s school, so we do stand out a bit—and not just because we attended Parent Night with him clad in a leather biker jacket and me sporting a Parisian scarf.

Some folks, of course, are in the same recall-deficient boat as I am, and there are others who simply don’t mind at all, wisely not taking my forgetfulness personally. But because there are just enough people who do mind, I’m always a little on edge when I approach the playground. There’s Hip Mama, for instance, who makes sure to greet me by name every single time she sees me…and then every single time adopts a slightly wounded look when I don’t use her name in return. In longsuffering fashion, Hip Mama reminds me who she is week after week, yet I’m always so busy cringing, I go deaf with embarrassment and miss whatever she’s saying. In the end, she hasn’t taught me her name at all, but has inadvertently trained me like Pavlov’s pups: at the mere sight of her, I gorge on my own shame.

At least Hip Mama seems forgiving—not everyone is. This particular afternoon, the stranger/not-stranger, who insists that we have in fact met more than once, isn’t going to let me off so easily. “I don’t look at all familiar to you, really?”

She sees me struggling and reluctantly trots out her name, though she clearly feels I should have been able to come up with it on my own. “Now, does that ring a bell?”

In the ensuing silence, I swear you can hear a whistling wind right out of a Western. Cue tumbleweeds.

There is a part of me that wants to list for this woman all the details claiming the spot where her name would go: what time we need to leave the playground in order to be home for a playdate, what size Diva’s feet are now, which snack she no longer likes and will refuse to eat if I put it in her bag, which tights she’s outgrown and thus need replacing, which friend’s birthday party we have to get a present for by this weekend, which grandma sent a present for which we still haven’t written a thank-you e-mail, and how long it will take to get today’s homework done, once we factor in tears and supper.

Instead, I rack my brain—trying to place the pretty face and elegant clothes, envisioning this woman at parties or Diva’s recitals or maybe Groovy Baby Music Class 2007. Nada, zip, zilch.

For a moment, I consider faking it, going with something like, “Oh, right!” followed closely with “How are you?” the emphasis masking that I still have no clue. But then I ask myself: is false cheer any less rude than true forgetfulness? I decide to fess up, abjectly admitting my own failures. “I’m sorry,” I say, because I am.

Pained expression marring her lovely features, she repeats her name and I vow to remember it.

It’s Laura.

Or maybe Lauren.

Lila? Lois? Lee? Just one little name and still!

NO VACANCY blinks the sign I can’t see. No room left at all.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Age of Reason

“So when, exactly, does the ‘threat and reward’ period end?”

When I asked this innocent question two summers ago, I was sitting in the home of The Hubby’s cousins, The O’s. The O’s have four school-aged children, and they always make the whole damn process of parenthood look so manageable that it makes me feel a little deficient. The question arose because I had just threatened to send Diva to bed without any more razor scooter time. At this point, I don’t even remember the nature of her infraction—I only recall my threat, which was a good one because the scooter was to her like crack is to a cokehead. She complied instantly with my request—whatever it was—because nothing trumped scooter time.

I wasn’t that happy to have won the battle because, really, what I wanted more was for her to be able to listen to me—no, obey me—without threat of punishment. I mean, that’s what children are supposed to do, right? And yet it seemed the only way to get Diva to do anything that was not immediately thrilling or delightful was to either threaten her (with the removal of some activity, object, or privilege) or to bribe her (with the return of the same things). I was sure that her age—Diva was only three—had something to do with her recalcitrant streak, and I couldn’t wait for a more reasonable era to begin.

With The O’s being so experienced, I looked to them for signs of relief. “So when, exactly, does the ‘threat and reward’ period end?”

Daddy O looked at his wife, smirked, and shook his head. “You heard that it ends?”

Mommy O joined in. “Let us know when that happens.”

I was horrified. “Don’t they get to a point where you can just reason with them?”

Daddy O laughed. “My friend, consider the grown-ups you know. How many of them can you just reason with?” He clapped one hand on my shoulder in a gesture somewhere between mock support and true pity. “Good luck with that.”

This story came to mind this week as I tried to get The Diva to accept her flu shot. Some background: she had asthma as a baby and ended up hospitalized overnight three times for breathing-related issues. Though we still do nebulizer treatments in the winter, she hasn’t had an episode in a few years and we like to think she is (or will be) one of those kids who outgrow childhood asthma. Even so, her pediatrician likes to make sure she gets her flu shot to cut down on the risk of any lung-compromising illness. That’s fine, but because of the past illnesses, Diva can’t get the gentle flu mist that is squirted up the nose. No, no—it has to be the shot.

I’m hard pressed to believe that there is a child alive who enjoys a shot. I mean, what is a shot after all but someone intentionally breaking your skin and sticking something sharp inside your flesh? But there are children who are completely stoic, children who swear it doesn’t hurt, and children who only cry a little but recover quickly. The Diva is not any of those children. She dreads shots, all shots, and it doesn’t matter whether it is quick or not, a pinprick or a drill bit, she is going to howl like the damned being consumed by flames.

This year, I was tasked with getting her to the fateful jab session. Last year, The Hubby did it, and he had to pin her arm down to accomplish the task, letting her cry it out afterwards. I was prepared to do the same, except we got Nurse Dour, who saw Diva’s trembling lip and barked, “I can’t inoculate any child who isn’t perfectly still.” Children don’t like criticism any more than they like shots, so our gal’s trembling soon gave over to full tears. I rolled up my sleeve and let Nurse Dour take a stab at me, to show Diva that it wasn’t so bad—and, indeed, it wasn’t. Unpleasant though she may have been, this nurse was a pro: I really did not feel it at all. I said so to Diva, but she couldn’t hear me over her wailing.

Nurse Dour stared us down. “I’ll be here all evening, but I can’t help you till she’s still.”

I suppose we could have just left. But I had myself convinced that if we didn’t get the shot done that night, it wouldn’t go easier any other time. So I immediately went to the playbook of the grandmother who raised me; to use her expression, I brooked no nonsense.  I should have paused to consider how much I resented my grandmother’s tough side when I was a child. But instead, I took Diva off to a corner and firmly explained that the flu shot was not optional. The doctor had said she had to have it. This logic had no noticeable effect and, indeed, only ramped up the tears.

Before I knew it, out came the threats. “This lady is really good but if you won’t let her do it tonight, you might get someone really bad later who makes it hurt more.” Waaaah! “We might have to use the Shot Nurse at your doctor’s office and you know how bad she is.” Waaaah! “If you don’t get the shot now and get the flu, you’ll hurt all over and miss school and won’t be able to play with your friends.” Waaaah! “We’re going to have to sit here all night until you’re ready and you’ll miss supper and not be able to do bedtime stories.” Waaaaah. (Pause for hiccup of grief) Waaaah!

This was not my finest moment as a parent.

From the outside, it certainly looked like I was doing things right. I was sitting with Diva in my arms the entire time, talking in a soft voice and rubbing her back. Nurse Dour commented at one point, “You are a model of patience. I’m impressed.” What I wanted to say to the nurse was, “If you’d let me just pin her like a World Wide Wrestling pro, I could go home.” Instead, I smiled a wan smile and hoped someday my daughter wouldn’t need therapy because I had emotionally scarred her as a child.

We had been there 40 minutes—yes, 40—when The Hubby arrived to see what was going on. He took the bribery route. “I have a present for you that we’ve been saving, but it’s at home and we can’t get to it until you’re done here.” Five minutes after he arrived, we walked out with our daughter in tow, still wailing, but now also inoculated. I was relieved, though a little chagrined to have just been Good-Cop/Bad-Copped by my own husband.

This is where I’m supposed to put the life lesson: the important nugget I took away from the experience. Except that I don’t have one. We try to talk through a lot of things with our daughter, and sometimes we manage to be calm, thoughtful, and wise. But we still end up at threat and reward more often than not. There are days when I don’t care, when it feels like any solution will do. After all, any day that both parent and child survive is a good day.

But I aspire to more than mere survival. I still hope that an age will come where there is at least a higher quotient of rational discussion, not just cajoling and browbeating. And I know that’s got to start with me. As much as I want her to mature into a child who can be reasoned with, I want to age into being a more reasonable parent myself. I suppose, that with even more insane eras like Diva’s adolescence ahead, I may someday look back on this wish as being a little naïve. But, for now, a Papa can dream, can’t he?