September 2010


Up until last Friday I was a wizard and I had this magical power. No matter what the situation I could stop my two-and-a-half-year-old from making mischief simply by chanting the following magic spell:

“I’m going to count to three and if you don’t stop you are going to have to… [Insert appropriate ending such as “go to your room”, “go home”,” put away your toys” etc]

It worked every time. I felt like such a gifted being to have come up with such a trustworthy spell.

I used my magic sparingly of course and never took it for granted. I had seen enough wizard movies to know that if you abuse your magical powers they usually get taken away from you by “The Association of Magical Wizards”. This fearsome gaggle of overlords is like the co-op board of the mystical world. They put you in your place when you step over the line.

I always played it safe and only used my spell when my daughter was doing something like poking an animal with a stick or screaming relentlessly at the top of her lungs because she wanted apple juice. And because I was so sparing and so respectful I guess I just assumed that I’d have my power and be a wizard forever.

But last Friday, (oh, that cursed day), I got a rude awakening. I was taking a nice fall walk with Sage and one of her toddler friends. Both kids were happily hopping along the sidewalk and hunting for acorns when all of a sudden Sage spotted a pile of fallen leaves. Both children ran to the leaves, scooped them up, and then exploded them into the air like confetti. It was so picturesque I felt like I was at a calendar shoot for the month of October. But then the leaves on the sidewalk ran out and Sage happened to notice that there were more leaves in the middle of the street. “I want those,” she said, and darted past me towards the piles. “No,” I warned. “We can not play in the street. I need to keep you and your buddy safe and running in traffic is not safe.”

Sage was not satisfied with my response. She dipped her toe over the curb and slowly inched her body into a squat and then tried crawling towards the leaves. “No,” I reprimanded. “No running in traffic, no crawling in traffic.” I could see her buddy was starting to hanker for those leaves too. He was watching Sage in her attempts and clearly plotting his move. I knew I had to lay down the law. I could handle one rogue kid, but certainly not two.  What if they both ran towards the leaves at the same time? How would I rescue them? This was about to get dangerous; I had to bust out my magic.

“Sage…” I said, taking my wizard stance; legs spread and arms akimbo. “I am going to count to three and if you do not start cooperating and listening we are going to have to go home.”

I waited for the shimmering sparks and the immediate shift in tone that usually follows that statement… but nothing happened.

Sage just stared at me, her face as unmoved as a brick wall. “OK,” she said, like she was sixteen and completely apathetic, “Let’s go home.” Then with a sprightly hop she once again tried trotting towards the leaves.

I lunged for her and took her into my arms, completely stunned. I just held her there dangling in front of me. I tried whispering the spell. I tried saying it in Elfin and then in Klingon. She just shook her head.

There was nothing left to do. We had to go home. I gathered both children into my arms and tried to hold tight as they squirmed and wiggled and begged for more leaves.

“No,” I said. “The fun is over. If you can not listen you can not play.”

When we got home Sage and I had a talk and then I hid in the bathroom and stared at my reflection. I just wanted to know what a wizard looked like when she’s been stripped of her magic. It was a sad, sad sight.

And now I just don’t know what to do. I don’t know if there is some sort of appeal process. Like, maybe I can go before the wizard association and beg for my power back. I can tell them how very important that magic was to my life. “Look, I need that power. I need it. That power allows me to stay sane. It allows me to keep food off of the walls and water off the floor of the bathroom. It keeps animals safe, it keeps my child safe. It keeps libraries quiet. Do it for the good of all humanity. What will become of my world if I no longer have the ability to curb the unwieldy ways of a toddler with my incantation? Regular humans might have other coping mechanisms to deal with these types of situations, but I never developed those skills. I was a wizard, damn it! I was special!  It’s like you are taking a monkey who has been raised in captivity and suddenly throwing her into the jungle. Don’t do it. Don’t thrust me out!”

But something makes me think they might just laugh in my face and tell me to deal with it. Maybe they’d give me some speech about it being part of the journey. Maybe they’d tell me that being a wizard is not about spells and simple magic, it’s about hard work and time and persistence.

And that would really piss me off. After all, once you’ve felt what it’s like to have magic, even for a minute, it’s really a bummer to go back to your regular human ways.

I’ve never thrown a punch, administered a headlock, or busted out a set of nunchucks. I’ve never karate-kicked, or wrestled, or even slapped someone.

I’ve never been in a fight.

I’ve seen a few scuffles. One time in Brooklyn I saw a guy get pummeled against a street sign and one time in high school two girls in my class attacked each other over a mishap at a volley ball tournament. All I remember is how messy it looked; the sweat, the cursing, the red marks from where the punches fell. I was fairly certain I wanted to avoid any situation where I might get someone else’s spit and blood on my face.

On a handful of occasions I’ve had the impulse to lash out. Like one time when Verzion sent me a bogus bill and made me stay on the phone for five hours transferring from department to department only to hang up on me just as they were about erase the erroneous charge.

I punched the air and drop kicked my phone and if I could have afforded a plane ticked to India I would have flown all the way over to the Verizon customer service center just so I could strangle the dude who hung up on me. But, alas, I was too broke and too lazy to make the journey.

As a mom, I’ve communicated my non-violent ways to my daughter.  I’ve quickly interjected every time she raises her fists in frustration or pushes a friend when the whole sharing thing goes awry.

For the most part she’s gotten the message that hitting and punching and kicking and pinching and strangling are not okay. And I’ve been thrilled!

But a few weeks ago she was out with some friends and two “big boys” came up out of nowhere, hit her in the stomach, and then pushed her down. And a few days later on the playground my daughter took a bite to the arm for lingering too long at the top of the slide. Both times Sage just gave this look of shock. Her shoulders shot up to her ears and she folded her arms over her chest in a protective stance, “NO,” she shouted. Then, “Mommy, Mommy.”

And now I’m starting to wonder if maybe I need to shift my tune. Do I want her to just stand by and get pummeled? Do I want her to fight back? Maybe I should be telling her not to hit unless… someone else hits her super hard and is being a massive jerk or not to push unless someone breaks her skin with their teeth.  Maybe I need to make her a pocket-sized cheat sheet that spells out the types of offenses that warrant retaliation.

A simple push= just walk away

A push + a punch= push back but not too hard

A push+ a punch+ a kick= retaliate any way that you see fit

She could carry this little guide around and pull it out any time she does not know how to respond. “Oh crap, someone is tossing sand into my eyes, I have tried saying no, I’ve tried running away, what now…Wait, let me check the sheet. Hmmm relentless sand tossing equals a light kick to the shin. Got it!”

The problem is, it’s just never that clear cut. At times she is the one who has encouraged the hitting or kicking. Maybe she’s taken a toy, maybe she’s used words to tease. And how does that factor into the equation?

And even if I could come up with an appropriate response for every situation, there would be no way to explain the grey areas in every human interaction. Like maybe the pusher was going through a really hard time. Maybe he was teething or adjusting to a new baby sibling or maybe he had just shit his diaper and was feeling really irritable. How would I even begin to explain all these factors?

So it’s easier to just say “no hitting, no punching, no biting, no kicking, no strangling” and hope she’ll figure out how to navigate her own way. Or… I suppose I could also follow her everywhere for the rest of her life and throw some of those punches I’ve been saving up all these years. “Hey you, yeah you! That’s right kid in the adorable overalls. Did you just punch my kid? I thought so. You mess with her you mess with me. Got it? Now have you ever heard of Karate…”

My daughter and I have a daily routine. I put on a black bowler hat, she puts on a yellow sun hat. She nods to me, “Hello, Mister,” she says.

“Hello, Mister,” I echo back.

We shake hands.

We then do two laps around the house singing the following song: Mister and Mister are walking down the street. Mister and Mister are happy to meet you.

After the walk we turn to each other and I ask, “Where do you want to go, Mister?”

She answers, “to the movies, Mister.”

She hops in a little plastic blue boat and I hop in a little red car. We sit in our vehicles side-by-side and sway our bodies back and forth as if meandering down a quiet country road.

“We’re here!” Sage shouts after we’ve swayed back and forth about a dozen times.

“To the movies, Mister!” I say.

“Yes, Mister!” she echoes.

We exit our vehicles and walk arm-in-arm to the stairwell. We sit on the top step and proceed to stare at the wall. We do not talk.  We do not look at one another. We just pretend to watch an invisible movie. After about two minutes my two-and-a-half year-old rises quickly and says, “Good movie, Mister.”

“Yes, Mister. Good movie,” I confirm.

We take off our hats, shake hands, and continue the rest of our day as Sage and Mommy.

For some odd reason I find this fantasy to be incredibly satisfying. It leaves me feeling absolutely complete. It’s like a little Haiku; it’s like meditation. It relaxes me in a way that I can only compare to lying on the beach when it is perfectly sunny but not too hot. When we are playing “Mister and Mister” I just exist. It’s like a little scripted world and I know all my lines. I don’t have to think. I’m good at being “Mister”.

The other day, I was hiding away in the bedroom struggling to meet a deadline for work and feeling like a complete failure. I’d been trying to write the same sentence for the past hour and every attempt ended in a tangled mess of incoherent words. My husband was going to be late for a meeting if I didn’t emerge soon to take our daughter. I started feeling desperate. I began to hear a little “you suck” monologue in my head. I paced around. I kicked the wall. I ate some chocolate. I returned to the computer and gave it another go.

I failed yet again.

I paced around some more. I debated which window I would throw myself out of should I not be able to complete my assignment. I could hear my husband packing up his things, “I’ve got to go, love,” he gently reminded me.

“Leave, leave, leave” I barked back. “I’ll make this work somehow.”

I heard him exit out the back door. “I’ll be out in just one minute,” I called to Sage. “I’ve just got to write this one last sentence.”

She did not want to wait one minute. Before I could blink she was standing in the doorway holding out my black “Mister hat.”

“Let’s play Mister and Mister,” she begged.

“I can’t,” I huffed. ” I’m stuck, I need to figure out how to write something. It’s going to be a little bit longer.”

“You need to play Mister,” she insisted.

“But I really can’t,” I hissed.

My daughter looked at me like I’d just run over her heart with a tractor.

I put on my hat.

“Hello, Mister,” she said.

“Hello, Mister,” I echoed with far less enthusiasm than usual. We shook hands and began our laps around the house. As we looped past the dining room clock I paused.  I was almost certainly going to miss my deadline. I did not have time for Mister.

Sage immediately sensed my hesitation. She stopped in her tracks. “This is not how Mister goes!”

I took a deep breath. I debated trying to explain the way a deadline works and how Mommy is not only Mommy but also someone with a job who must make money so that we can eat. But when I looked down at her wearing her Mister hat, ready to have our daily adventure together, I just couldn’t.

“You’re right, Mister,” I apologized.

I took her hand and we continued. I followed the Mister script. Despite the impending deadline, despite the dread, I just did what Mister does. I walked, drove my plastic car, and watched an invisible movie. The power of my daughter’s play took over and despite my resistance it was absolutely lovely.

I still missed my deadline of course. The Mister hat is not an actual magic hat after all. It cannot make you go back in time and avoid the hours that you wasted on misguided ideas and ill articulated phrases. But I’m pretty sure that the brief escape into the world of Mister is what allowed me to eventually eke out that last little phrase that I’d been struggling with all day and press send on a document that ended up being pretty damn good.

According to my two-and-a-half-year-old, “big girls” rule the world. They are like little wizards disguised in leggings and Gap t-shirts. They can operate scissors, ride bikes with only two wheels, consume hard candy…their magical powers are truly undeniable and Sage is trying desperately to get on their team. Each time she completes a task that she identifies as “big girl” she practically explodes with glee. When she successfully used a glue stick we celebrated for three days straight, when she drank from a glass cup with no protective spill shield we called the local news station, and when she peed in the toilet, the real toilet, we danced until our shoes burned off our feet.

The other night at dinner, when she cast aside her blunted plastic fork and requested an adult sized utensil, I knew she was going for the gold. We watched with awe as she raised it above her head and then deftly speared a small noodle.  She was utterly shocked by the accomplishment, “Mommy…Daddy” she whispered. “I…I…I’m a big girl…I can fork! I CAN FORK!!!”

“Yes, yes!” We cheered. “You can fork. You can. You’re a forkin’ big girl!!”

But somewhere during all the excitement she suddenly got pensive. “I’m growing up,” she said in this tone that made me think she was really mystified by the whole process. And then she asked, “Why? Why am I growing?”

My husband and I exchanged a look and I knew we were both debating a response. Would we give a whole metaphor about seedlings growing into flowers? Would we make up a song to reveal the answer? Would we draw a diagram?

We opted for the boomerang approach and tossed the question back at her.

“Why do you think you’re growing?” we asked.

She paused for a good three seconds. She looked at her fork, she looked at us. She looked back at her fork, she looked back at us.

“I’m growing because you love me,” she said.

Of course, my husband and I cried.

Later that night, long after my daughter had gone to bed, I thought about her answer and wondered, “How much of her “growing up” really has to do with us?” Sure there are the obvious things like the fact that we’re feeding her and hydrating her and that obviously contributes to her literal growth. And we’re doing our absolute best to make her feel secure, and confident, and brave and I’d like to think that’s helping her inch upwards in the emotional arena. And yes we might be teaching her a thing or two: letters, numbers, colors, mostly by accident, so there are some cognitive leaps happening as a result of our presence.  But what I’m discovering more and more each moment that I know her is that she is in the driver’s seat, headed ninety miles per hour towards the person she will become. Her sense of humor is her own. Her stories and songs are made up on the fly. Her walk is determined yet dainty; it has a rhythm I cannot recognize in my own footsteps or my husband’s.   The world that she sees is painted in colors I can’t even imagine. She has a wisdom that is far beyond anything I can conjure in myself. Her creativity is mind-blowing and raw. Everything she touches turns into a unique invention.

Someday, when she really is “a big girl”, I’ll remind her of that one time she told us that she was “growing up because we loved her” and she’ll roll her eyes and make a gagging sound. “You guys’ had nothing to do with it,” she’ll groan.  And I’ll push back because, how could I not? I’ll list the numerous ways that we made her awesome and therefore request a small percentage of everything she ever earns along with a medium sized retirement house on the beach.  But really, secretly I’ll be thinking, “You’re absolutely right. You were your own person from the very start.”

The President recently went on vacation. And though I am no expert on the goings on of the President, I like to imagine the things that he might do on vacation. It’s all so glamorous and top secret. I picture him being whisked off to secluded beaches and entertained by world-class musicians who come right to his fancy villa and give him a private performance.  And then I imagine him dining out at elegant restaurants. I imagine the entourage that must accompany him and all the foresight and planning and careful investigation that must go into picking the eating establishment.

The secret service gets involved of course. Wearing their slick black suits and little mini walkie-talkies they must vet any restaurant before it is deemed appropriate for the chief executive.  “Blue dog, blue dog I am in the restaurant. I am assessing all available exits. Affirmative, I have identified three.  This place is looking like a possibility. Now I am checking for potential threats. All clear under the table, all clear in the restroom. I am removing all sharp objects from the vicinity. Mission completed. The area has been secured. Final mission now under way. I am reserving a table away from the crowd. Check, I have secured a table where the President can maintain a low profile and not create a stir amongst the other diners.  Bring in the boss. We are a go. Operation Eat in Peace can now begin.”

Strangely, as I imagine this federal security team, it all starts to sound familiar. Was I in the secret service in a past life? Was one of those “fresh out of college” temp jobs for the federal government? All those gigs are such a blur now I’d be hard pressed to say. Wait a minute… I know why this drill sounds familiar! This is the exact routine my husband and I go through when we want to go out to dinner with our two-and-a-half year old; except we don’t have walkie-talkies or cool black suits.

JD and Sage hang in the doorway counting light fixtures or making up songs while I creep into the restaurant to assess.  Just like the secret service, I look for easy exits. Where will I run if she has a melt down? Where will we go when she insists, “No table mommy, no more no way. I need to dance.” Next I move on to threats- are there vases on the tables? Small flames within reach? A steak knife? Do I see anything in grabbing range that my daughter might brandish like a sword? All of these items will need to be removed. Then, just like the President’s team, I look for something secluded, something off the beaten path, something one step above a coat closet or bathroom stall. The more privacy we have the more we can sing our goofy “I like the way that Sage is eating” song, and blow bubbles with our straws, and accidentally throw crayons. But I don’t stop there. I am even more thorough than the Secret Service. I check for highchairs, I make sure there is at least one screaming child in the room, I look for bendy-straws, and hope to find lots of food morsels strewn about the floor.  Loud music is a plus. Loud, live music is divine! When I’ve completed my investigation I dash back to my crew, “All systems go. Operation Eat As Fast As You Can And Get The Hell Out Of There Before Bedtime Grows Near can now begin.”

Just like the President when we enter the restaurant everyone is aware of our presence. Just like the President people gasp and wonder, “Will they sit next to me?” And when we finally do choose our seats everyone within our range stares and whispers, “What is going to happen over there at that table?”

After our meal, when we get up to leave, sometimes people clap…

It’s all very glamorous, just as it is for the President, I’m sure.

A doorknob, it’s such a little thing. I never really gave it much thought. It just sits there hanging out. Maybe it’s brass, maybe wood. It’s almost ornamental. You turn it around when you want to get in or out. It’s an automatic thing. It’s like blinking. Basically, a doorknob is a nothing.

But just the other day my daughter figured out how to open one.  I was in the office, pecking away at my computer, trying to find the exact right words to describe the way a turtle looks when he’s thinking really hard, when all of a sudden I saw the doorknob slowly start to turn. I jumped from my seat. Was it a ghost? Surely it couldn’t be my daughter, not my two-and-a-half year old, she doesn’t have the fine motor goods to pull that off!  But much to my surprise, like a gust of autumn wind, who should push the door wide open but Sage.  My mouth dropped.

“I did it!” she shrieked in delight. “You did it!” I clapped echoing her enthusiasm. And I was genuinely happy for this milestone moment.

But then… it hit me.

This changes everything! For starters I can now forget about working at home and occasionally peeing in privacy. That will now be completely out of the question. And beyond that I expect that I will now wake most nights to a toddler who has snuck out of her room, crawled into my bed, and planted herself conveniently on my face. So, sleep is out too. And discipline… well that is going to shift forever. Now when I send my daughter to her room the only reason she’ll agree to stay in there is if she respects me or fears me… I lose on both counts. And what happens when she gets a sudden craving for an ice-cream cone? She won’t even bother asking me to take her. She knows where I keep my wallet. She’ll just take out my credit card and head out for a chocolate Sunday. The cashier won’t know what’s going on when out of nowhere a tiny hand appears over the counter holding a visa and a little voice whispers, “chocolate please.”  And soon I expect she’ll be sneaking out in the middle of the night too. She’ll have little meet-ups. She’ll start a club with other local toddlers who can open doorknobs and they’ll rent out a warehouse and have raves where they rock out to Dan Zanes, eat candy necklaces, throw off their diapers, and pee willy-nilly on the floor. The neighbors will complain of the noise, the toddlers will rebel. They’ll go around town opening every door they can. They’ll break into law offices and gobble up important documents. They’ll break into the police station and let out all the prisoners, they’ll break into the motorcycle shop and go for a joy ride. They’ll go around turning doorknobs for no reason at all… just because they can!  They’ll travel from house to house opening and closing door after door! Folks will think there’s a poltergeist on the loose. The city council will meet; they’ll declare an emergency. The FBI will get involved. The door opening toddlers won’t pay them any mind because they don’t know who the hell the FBI is. They’ll just continue wrecking havoc. The town will have no choice but to remove all doorknobs from all doors. And with no doorknobs, none of us will have a way in or out of our homes.

We’ll just be stuck, right where we are, forever and ever and ever.

Suddenly I start to feel bad for all those years I just walked around opening and closing doors and not paying any mind to those little doorknobs. I’m sorry, doorknobs! I’m sorry. You really do make the world a better place. You are important. You make me happy. You give me the boundaries and the freedom that keeps me sane. I need you doorknobs… I need you!!