Little Snakes: By Catherine Newman

Little Snakes: By Catherine Newman

Little Snakes.jpg“Hibernaculum,” Birdy says again, patiently, after I shake my head at the unrecognized word. “It’s a place where all the snakes are waking up.” All the snakes is not a phrase I’m in love with. Especially followed by waking up. I must shudder visibly, because Birdy laughs. “I know!” she says, and pats me. “It sounds so terrible! I thought the same thing. And it is. But it’s amazing.”

Because this hibernaculum, to which a teacher has taken my daughter’s class, is within walking distance of our house, Birdy, her older brother Ben, their father, and I set off through the woods. It’s early spring, some scraps of ground thawing darkly, some still patchy with ice. We will experience this cold-blooded waking nightmare ourselves in just a minute—but still we pepper ten-year-old Birdy with questions. How many snakes are there? “Fifteen?” she says, making a little más-o-menos sign with her hand. “Maybe fifty? I’m not so great at estimating.” What are they doing? She shrugs. “Just, kind of, being snakes.”

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It Gets Better

It Gets Better

Letter to My Teen Self ArtDear Me,

You know how you feel when you see the “Runaway Truck Ramp” sign on the highway? Like there must be an eighteen-wheeler barreling massively behind you, on the brakeless verge of destroying your beautiful, doomed life? You can picture the tiny, rosy-cheeked children screaming, clinging to you, since you are, of course, riding in the back with them the better to distribute string cheese and hand-holding and the occasional contorted breast, bared and stretched towards somebody’s crying face, but only if they’ve been crying for a long time. About to be crushed—all of it. But runaway truck also feels like a metaphor for something—for you, maybe, with your impulse to careen off alone to Portugal or Applebee’s, just so you can sit for five unmolested minutes with a sandwich and a glass of beer. Just so you can use the bathroom one time, without having a concurrent conversation about poop with the short person who has to stand with a consoling hand on your knee, looking worriedly up into your straining face. Later, it won’t be like that. You’ll see the sign, and the nearby gravelly uphill path, and you’ll think, “That’s a good idea, for the runaway trucks.” Also, you will shit alone.

You know how you know by heart the phone number of the Poison Control Center? Because the children, your constantly imperiled children, like to eat ice melt and suck batteries and help themselves to nice, quenching guzzles of cough medicine? You won’t know that number anymore.

One day, the children will eat neither pennies nor crayons nor great, gulping handfuls of sand like they have a powerful thirst for sand, sand, only sand. They will no longer choke on lint and disks of hot dog or fall down the stairs, their heads making the exact, sickening, hollow-melon thump that you knew they would make, when you knew they would fall down the stairs. They will still fall out of trees and off of trampolines. They will still scrape their elbows and knees and foreheads, and you will still be called upon to tend to these injuries. And you will be happy to, because they so rarely need you to kneel in front of them any more, to kiss them tenderly, here, and also here. Rest assured, though, that there will be ongoing opportunity for the knelling likelihood of doom and destruction. Ticks will attach their parasitic selves to the children’s scalps and groins; rashes and fevers and mysterious illnesses will seize everyone, and you will still go on a Googling rampage of “mild sore throat itchiness coma death.” The kids will still barf with surprising frequency—but competently, into tidy buckets, rather than in a spraying impersonation of a vomit-filled Super-Soaker on the drunk frat boy setting.

You know how you see germs everywhere? Every last microbe illuminated by the parental headlamp of your OCD? One day you won’t. One day you will handle doorknobs and faucets and even, like a crazy person, the sign-in pen at the pharmacy. In a public bathroom, the children will no longer need to touch and/or lick every possible surface. Seriously.

You know how you’re tired? So tired that you mistake talking in an exhausted monotone about your tiredness for making conversation? You won’t be tired. Or rather, you will sometimes be tired, sometimes rested, like regular people are. You won’t have to blearily skim the passage of the novel you’re reading, where the protagonist lies down on her soft bed, between crisp, clean sheets, your own eyes filled with tired, envious tears. You won’t daydream about rest and recumbency, lawn chairs and inflated pool rafts and white hotel comforters. You won’t look forward to the dentist, just so you can recline alone for forty heavenly, tartar-scraping minutes. One day, you will once again go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning. You will sleep as much as you want to. You’ll actually be shocked if you don’t get to, if a child is ill or can’t fall asleep, even though now you lie wedged into various cribs and cots, night after night, still as a button, while a small somebody drifts off and snaps awake gropingly and drifts off again. “How did we used to do it?” you will say, and your husband will shake his head and grimace. You will no longer be constantly scheming to lie down, tricking the kids into playing another round of “Sick Patient,” so you can be dead on the couch while they prod you therapeutically with plastic screwdrivers and the doll’s bottle. “I’m still not better,” you mumble now, but you will be. You really will.

One day, you’ll be sitting on the couch with your husband, reading the Sunday paper, and around the time you’re getting to the book review, you’ll think to ask, “Are the kids still sleeping?” And he’ll shrug without putting down the sports section. The kids might be sleeping, or they might be reading in their beds, playing with Legos, stroking the cat, bickering gently, resolving their differences. And you will be awake, even though you don’t have to be. I swear it on a stack of attachment-parenting books. Speaking of the newspaper: You will one day climb back into bed with the heavy wedge of folded sections and an unspilled mug of hot, milky coffee. You will even do the crossword puzzle—and all the puzzles you’ve been saving. It’s okay—I know about the newspaper that still arrives constantly, either because you’re in denial amount the way you recycle it unread, or because you cannot recall your account password and don’t have the intelligence or emotional resiliency to figure out how to cancel your subscription. But still you tear out the Sunday crossword and stuff it into your bedside table with this crazy idea that you might get to it later. And you will. You’ll open the drawer one evening (to ferret out some birth control, no less) and you’ll find the archaeological evidence of your optimism: hundreds of puzzles spanning a sizable chunk of the early millennium. And you’ll lie around doing them in a kind of ecstatic trance, practically eating bonbons and weeping with happiness.

You will have time to run and bike and do yoga and floss and have sex. And sometimes you won’t, but it won’t even be the children’s fault. It’s just that you’re lazy. Or doing a crossword puzzle.

You know your body? How it’s like baggy, poorly curated exhibit about reproduction? You know how your weaned bosom looks like a cross between a pair of used condoms and Santa’s sack, on the day after Christmas? All empty and stretched out with maybe one or two lumpy leftover presents that couldn’t be delivered? It will all get better. The bosom will never again look like a bursting gift-filled bag of awesome, that’s true. But it will look less harrowed by motherhood; the breasts, they will tighten up a bit. All of it will tighten up a bit and be yours again, to do with what you will. For example, your husband won’t gesture to you at a party after you’ve been nursing the baby. “What?” you mouth back now, sticking a fingernail between your teeth. “Spinach?” And he shakes his head and points at your front, and you look down to see the elastic top of your tank top, and how your left breast is hanging over it. That won’t happen any more. But it’s true that some of your many nipple hairs will turn gray.

Even though you’re older, though, you’ll actually be less hunched! One day, whenever you arrive somewhere, you will simply get out of the car and walk inside! You won’t be permanently bent over to deal with the car seat/seat belt/shoes/socks/sippy cups/diapers/turd on the floor. Why, you wonder, does so much of your current life take place below you? (It’s because the kids are small.) One day infants and diaper bags and hemorrhoids and boobs won’t be hanging off of your person like you’re a cross between a human mobile and a Sherpa and a performance art piece about Dante’s Inferno. The flip side is that there will be fewer cuddles. Lots still, but fewer. For example, every morning you will have to kiss your twelve-year-old good-bye not on the school walkway, but in the bushes before you get there, like you’re sneaky, chaste teenagers.

You know all those things you thought would be fun with kids, but secretly kind of aren’t? Going to museums, making biscuits, watching the Peter Sellers Pink Panther movies, ice skating, swimming, singing in the rain—how they all end in tears and pooping and everybody needing to be rocked to sleep in the sling? All those things really will be fun! You’re just doing them too soon because you’re bored of HI-Ho Cherry-o and the diaper-smell Children’s Room of the library and those hairshirts of conversation about would you stay partners with Daddy if he turned into a mosquito and was always buzzing around and stinging everybody but had his same face? One day, you will watch Monty Python and The King’s Speech with the kids, instead of Arthur’s Easter Egg Surprise and Caillou by Mistake Draws on a Library Book, and you will hardly believe your good luck. At the dinner table, you’ll talk about natural selection and socialized medicine. You’ll arrive at your campsite, and the children will carry wood and play beanbag toss, rather than cramming pinecones and beetles into their mouths before darting into the road to get run over by a Jeep. Your vigilance will ebb away until you actually take for granted how it feels to sit with a beer in your hand, looking unworriedly up at a sky full of stars with a lapful of big kid.

They will still believe in fairies. Sort of.

They will buckle their own seatbelts and make themselves toast and take their dishes to the sink instead of flinging them to the floor like the drunk, tyrannical fathers from Irish novels. They will do most, if not all, of the important things that you worry they’ll never be able to do, ever, such as following the pendulum of your finger with their gaze and wading in the neighbor’s inflatable pool and riding the merry-go-round (phew!). Speaking of merry-go-rounds: The years will start to fly by surreally, the seasons recurring like you’re captive on a deranged carousel of time. The dogwood will bloom, it will be Christmas, the dogwood will bloom again, the children will start middle school. That is how it will be.

They will stop doing most of the annoying things that you worry they’ll always do: They won’t sob into their cottage cheese for no reason, or announce guiltily, “Floss isn’t for eating,” or make you sing the ABCs like a lullaby, no, not like that, like this. They won’t ride the wheeled xylophone around the house like it’s a skateboard or lick spears of asparagus before leaving them, mysteriously, on the couch. They won’t talk about poop all the time. Kidding. They will still totally talk about poop all the time!

Not to be all baby out with the bathwater, but they’re also going to stop doing some of the things you love. They will learn that the line from “Eleanor Rigby” is not actually all the lonely peacocks. They won’t squint into the darkness and marvel at the moon beans, or hold their breaths when you pass the gravetary. They will no longer announce odd questions into the darkness of bedtime. “Mama, mama—how do cats turn into old cats?” And you will no longer sigh and say, “Time.” But they will be funnier on purpose. “Is that a robin?” your daughter will ask one day, pointing to a bird hopping along the hedge. When you say no, “Robins have red breasts,” she will say, “Plural? Breasts?” and use two index fingers to pantomime a bosom. They will make you laugh all the time, and they will make you think, and they will be exactly as beautiful as they are now. But with missing and giant teeth instead of those minuscule rows of pearls you so admire.

You know how you secretly worry that this is it, that it’s all downhill from here? I know you do. The children will turn into hulking criminals; their scalps will turn odorless; life will just generally suck. You lie in bed now during a thunderstorm, two sleeping, moonlight faces pressed against you, fragrant scalps intoxicating you, the rain on the roof like hoof beats, heartbeats—and the calamity of raising young children falls away because this is all you ever wanted. You boo-hoo noiselessly into the kids’ hair, because life is so beautiful, and you don’t want it to change. Enjoy it, do. But let me tell you—you won’t believe it, but let me—you will watch them sleeping still and always: the illuminated down of their cheeks, their dark puffs of lips and dear, dark wedges of eyelashes, and you will feel exactly the way you feel now. Only better.

Author’s Note: When Ben was three weeks old or so, sobbing in the front pack at the natural foods market while I fantasized about killing myself with an overdose of patchouli, a woman leaned in close to say, “Enjoy this. It’s such a fun age.” Then her head all but spun around, green vomit spraying from her mouth, when she added, “It’s all downhill from here.” So, I just want to be clear here that I wrote this piece not because I didn’t love having babies and toddlers swarming around for years and years, but because I loved  it so much that I was always paralyzed with terror about it ending. “Just you wait,” people have been saying doomfully to me for years. So I wanted to say it to you: just you wait. It gets even better. 

Brain, Child (Summer 2012)

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Karl Marx Never Bought Spanx

Karl Marx Never Bought Spanx

winter2011_newman“So socialism means that everyone shares everything?” My seven-year-old daughter is trying to understand why I refer to our cooperative summer arrangement as “Socialist Friend Camp.” “And why do you always say it that way?” She means Slavically.

I sigh. “It’s hard to explain,” I say, and it’s true. The accent is only part of it; really what I want to do is move through my suburban life in full Karl Marx costume, complete with bushy grey beard, bushy grey hair, and Communist Manifesto. Somebody somewhere is probably marketing that costume and—irony!—profiting handsomely from it. O, the world!

The world. There has never been a more catastrophically extreme divide between the rich and the poor: While the wealthy evade taxes and install TVs the size of flattened hearses, twenty-seven thousand children die daily of preventable causes—even though there’s enough to go around, there is. But it doesn’t go around. At America’s biggest companies, the CEOs earn over five hundred times what the average worker does. It’s easy for me to point my revolutionary finger: There. Bazillionaire! Bad. But what about right here, in my warm, comfortable house with rooms galore and cupboards lined with food? “In a second I would give it all up, I would, if that’s the direction the world was headed,” I say, and I mean it. But when the children say, “So let’s,” I sigh. I barely have time to nag my husband to mow our lawn; the fomenting of a movement and then the actual moving feels beyond the scope of my bourgeois energy level.

But sometimes it feels a little devastating, the sweetness we cultivate in our children, our insistence that they share their Zhu Zhu Pets and Laffy Taffy. Why even bother teaching them the values of sharing and cooperation, when our national ethos is the hoarding of food and medicine, land and resources, like the good capitalists that we are?

Congratulations! we’ll say when they turn twenty-one. Now you can start drinking legally and stop behaving ethically! Maybe we’re just helping them get all that pesky sharing out of the way so it doesn’t burden them later, when they’re clambering over each other towards the teetering heights of personal wealth.

Did you see that Simon Rich piece in The New Yorker a while back? It was called “Play Nice: If adults were subjected to the same indignities as children…” and the part that made me laugh out loud was this:

Lou Rosenblatt: Can I drive your car? I’ll give it back when I’m done.

Mrs. Herson: I’m sorry, do I know you?

Lou Rosenblatt: No, but we’re the same age and we use the same garage.

Mrs. Herson: No offense, sir, but I really don’t feel comfortable lending you my car. I mean, it’s by far my most important possession.

Brian Herson: Mom, I’m surprised at you! What did we learn about sharing?

Mrs. Herson: You’re right . . . I’m sorry. Take my Mercedes.

And it’s funny, it is. Grown-ups sharing! But isn’t it even more comical to imagine the opposite? Kids treating each other the way grown-ups do? Pimping out the labor of their peers, CEOing the babysitting and lawn-mowing to exploit each other for profit? Some kids unfettered in their wealth and greed, piggy banks overflowing, while other kids, the ones doing the actual work, can’t make a living wage? Ha ha ha! Oh, right, it’s not actually funny. I hate to become the embodiment of finger-wagging bummerhood, but seriously—is sharing the real indignity?

*   *   *

“From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” My kids are learning the Marxist formula, like good little card-carrying Socialists. But it doesn’t help that I am, as always, fuzzy on the details of my political passion. For instance: card-carrying, which, for some reason, I have always pictured more like Hallmark than ID. Because I am a Socialist / What’s mine is yours, you get the gist… I don’t mention to the kids the sexistly troubling fact that Mrs. Marx was likely stabbing platters of sliced bratwurst with toothpicks and pouring endless glasses of vodka for the meetings of the real Socialists, who were, of course, men.

Besides graduate school—where I T.A.ed a Marxist Theory class, pet-sat cats named Lenin and Trotsky, and found myself frequently flattened beneath various anvil-style monologues about dialectical materialism and commodity fetishism—everything I know about alternatives to Capitalism I know from the Woody Allen movies Bananas and Love and Death. Also from growing up in the age of Cold War propaganda. Remember how Nadia Comaneci’s gold-medal floor routines were interspersed with footage of her parents waiting greyly in assorted sleeting bread lines? My own Russian grandmother seemed to spend the 1970s making borscht and sending relatives home to the mother country with suitcases full of jeans. “You vill sell, yes?” The poor Communists didn’t even have jeans! Those glum kerchief-headed kids, waiting denimlessly for their heavy Soviet loaves.

Whose joke is it that Socialist recreation consists of waiting in line for tickets to the toilet-paper line? I want my kids to maintain their optimistic vision of utopian justice, without misleading them about the fact that there aren’t such great examples of it in human history. Or at least, none that I can explain very well. Sweden, for example. Besides the making meatballs and the becoming supermodels, what actually goes on in Sweden? Do they stand in IKEA lines for their national allotment of Smorssgläben side tables in birch? I have no idea. Beyond the better maternity leave, healthcare, and some kind of national right to blondness, I don’t know much. Which doesn’t seem to dam the stream of opinions pouring from my political face hole.

*   *   *

“Let’s play Proletariat Revolution again!” my red-diaper babies beg. “You be Hegel. We’ll be the alienated workers.”

“Not until you finish your turnip porridge,” I say, “and scrub the community toilets.” If only. We get out Monopoly like good citizens, so that we can learn about private property and screwing everybody. “You’d be able to get rich,” I explain to my losing children, “if you weren’t already so poor!” Suckers. Actually, Monopoly is dull compared to Acquire, a game from which Ben has learned the terms “corporate merger” and “majority shareholder”; playing it brings out the slum lord in everybody, all of us cackling and rubbing our hands together like evil flies. On principle, we also play Harvest Time, which is gentle and cooperative: We help each other hurry our crops into the root cellar before winter comes, but it is so frankly dull that we end up with our foreheads on the table, groaning, even while our little daughter is offering us some of her corn and carrots because she’s got more than she needs.

The kids talk about what they would wish for if they could have anything, distinguishing between just-for-being-selfish wishes (our own personal soda machine with soda in it that you would actually let us drink) and the real wish you would wish if you only had one wish (justice). “If you had limitless money,” Ben always prompts me, “then you could get the stuff you want and still buy everyone everything they need, right?” He pictures stacks and stacks of million-dollar bills, glad-handing his way to health and happiness for all, even as the Coke dispenser is being installed in our new billiards room. I explain that a radical redistribution of wealth is more complicated—more like beads moved around on an abacus than extra rows of beads added onto it—but it’s not what I actually picture. Justice: a cool hand smoothing the forehead of our feverish world.

*   *   *

“Oh, please,” I say aloud to the radio. “Obama’s not enough of a Socialist.” People are always quick to remind you that communism has never worked. And, sure, Cuba, China, the Soviet Union: too little fun, too much corruption—plus the executing of everybody who wasn’t already incarcerated. But what about Capitalism? It does seem to sleet less now in Eastern Europe, what with everyone’s access to bright pastels, the denim trousers without borders. But it’s hard to argue that capitalism is working exactly. Unless your goal was rich countries profiting off the backs of poor ones; unless your goal was freedom for the wealthy to run the endless Möbius-strip treadmill of paycheck-to-mall meaninglessness. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of crap you don’t need and also the Pottery Barn lidded baskets to store it all in. I’m glad I’m not, say, a serf—but at least with Feudalism, nobody was tricked into thinking that anyone could be king if they only worked hard enough or got a basketball scholarship.

*   *   *

Across the table from me now, Ben is eating a piece of blueberry crumb cake and showing me his fifth-grade homework. “It’s a compare and contrast chain about ‘Wakaima and the Clay Man,’” he explains, “which is a story about a lazy rabbit who makes an elephant do all the work on the farm. We’re supposed to show how it’s like a real-life situation.” He has described them as the fable version of factory owners and exploited workers. I have never been prouder. Workers of the world, unite!

“Why are you writing about it?” Ben asks pleasantly, crumbs spraying as he leans over to look at my computer screen. “I’m writing a piece about talking to kids about capitalism,” I tell him, and he says, “Wait, what’s capitalism again?”


This is probably where I should mention that Ben’s life goal is to own the world’s biggest casino. And also, you know, to promote justice. “When really rich people come and lose money,” he explains, “I’ll give that money away to an organization.” The Robin Hood of Las Vegas!

I’m not really surprised. It must be confusing to be the child of such a split-personality family. On the one hand, we have a young mother living with her baby in our guest room, and we get our Patagonia fleece hoodies at the Salvation Army. On the other hand, we send our kids to (wince) private school and plant peonies. We pick through bunches of organic kale when the world is full of people who aren’t eating at all—when across town from us, there are mothers picking through outdated cans in the food pantry, and across the world from us there are mothers rocking dying babies. What if my own children were ill in my arms, stilled by malnutrition or malaria, and I looked across the globe and saw people like us, in our cozy New England cape house, with our shoes for every season and our compost heaped with uneaten food? I don’t know what to think. It’s not right, living this way. It’s not fair. We teach our kids to share because we know it’s the only way to thrive, all of us.

In his 1949 paper “Why Socialism?” Albert Einstein, of e=mc, proposed eliminating the “grave evils” of capitalism via “a planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow-men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.”

I’m no physicist, but that kind of relativity? I get it. I do.

Author’s Note: At some point I was sitting around with friends, and we were drinking wine and yelling at our kids to share something fairly—jelly beans, I think. And then we were killing ourselves laughing, imagining training them from an early age to be good capitalists. (Which is, of course, the piñata model of distribution.) We were maybe a little drunk, but it triggers something deep, teaching kids fundamental values that aren’t always embraced by the broader culture. And honestly? This piece—it’s hard to put out there because I’m confessing such a profound hypocrisy. That line about my kids going to private school, for example—I deleted and retyped it a dozen times. I have good intentions; I’m selfish; I crave justice; I seek comfort. I judge myself harshly, but I hope you won’t judge me. I hope.

Brain, Child (Winter 2011)

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Bored Again

Bored Again

bored_again art“Mama, isn’t pucely the puceliest pucely you ever did puce?”

Pucely–a derivative of pussy—is what our seven-year-old daughter calls the cat. She is in love with the cat. (“Oh my God!” she cries, rushing at houseguests with the cat in her arms, her nose buried in his fur. “You have got to smell my pussy!”) Now she is lying on our couch on her back, bare-chested in shorty pajama bottoms. She appears to be watching the ceiling fan. “Isn’t he, Mama?”

“He is.”

“But isn’t he the very puceliest?”

“The very,” I say. “Do you want me to help you find something to do?”

“No.” She scratches her mosquito-bitten ankles. “I don’t want to do anything.” At least not anything but gurgle in the back of her throat a long, low sound that’s like a cross between growling and gagging.

I used to make the exact same sound. I also used to make a different sound using a lollipop that I sucked vibratingly against the side of my cheek. And one through my trumpeted-together lips, cheeks puffed out, that sounded like a grass whistle being blown by an elephant, but softly. “Mom, she’s doing it again.” I drove my older brother crazy—but no crazier than I drove myself, so it seemed fair enough.

My husband and I laughed recently when the Mad Men mom—with her comically retro exasperation—says to a restless child, “Only boring people are bored.”

Indeed. And also: Bored people are boring. It’s the behavioral equivalent of humidity: a vague clamminess that drapes itself around you like a cloak knitted from the damp wool of torpor. Bored people complain and make weird mouth sounds and memorize the Sears Wish Book like they expect to be tested on it. (Training bras, page 23, Barbie Styling Head, real pretend make-up sold separately, page 60.) Also, there’s the nausea. I don’t mean it in some kind of Sartrian existential way—just that my memories of childhood boredom are often twinned with my memories of feeling like I might barf.

For example: the record player. Home with the flu, my brother and I would sprawl on the living-room floor while the Beatles’ Red Album turned around and around the hi-fi; we lay back-down on the carpet or cheek-down on the wood; we watched the dizzifying vinyl; we studied the liner notes, like British-Invasion scripture that we already knew by heart. We had a comprehensive mental catalogue of the lyrics, even if we didn’t understand them. (Did you know, for instance, that “Norwegian Wood” is about something less like the Scandinavian forest I’d always pictured than like birch IKEA bookcases? Me neither.) It was the only record that we had, and listening to it was not the background to what we were doing; it was what we were doing.

“Love Me Do,” “Paperback Writer,” “Day Tripper,” “Eleanor Rigby.” (Was her actual face in a jar by the door?) To hear those songs even now is to be plunged into a kind of queasy ennui born of repetition crossed with both tedium and illness. Bang bang Maxwell’s silver hammer came down upon my head—but dully.

And then there was the car. Road trips meant a single sickening piece of original-flavor Trident and listening to my parents listen to the metallic top-of-the-hour news jingle. (Dee dee di-dee dee. “1010 WINS news. You give us twenty-two minutes, we’ll give you the world.” Deedle-y dee dee, deedle-y dee dee.) If it was raining, you could lean your cheek against the glass to watch the drops gather and skid, gather and skid, the boredom itself gathering up into a kind of carsickness that occasionally had to be barfed out the window.

Boredom is like a fever dream, like the way you feel staring at the wallpaper’s repeated pattern while you lie sweaty in your sickroom, listening to the clinking silverware and muted laughter of life happening elsewhere. Bored thoughts flap around like a fish on the deck of a sailboat that’s going nowhere in a windless bay. “But sometimes it feels good to be bored, right?” I ask the kids now.

Ben says, “I think if it feels good then that’s not boredom. It’s the difference between wanting to not do anything, which is nice, versus there not being anything you want to do, which is being bored.” Boredom is that agitated space between relaxation and action: Dialed down, it can become a pleasant kind of inertia or meditative stillness, where it feels good to sit quietly with your own thoughts; cranked up a notch, it can produce creative release. But that middle place is the boredom itself—restlessness with no movement. A dull and desperate longing for something else, something more or less.

It’s a strange kind of luxury, boredom—a luxury full of loss. Read the Little House on the Prairie books with your kids, and you just can’t help envying the absence of boredom: They are simply too busy starving to death and having a fire-baked potato explode in their eye and chasing locusts off their crops to experience a moment’s ennui. The kids like to imitate them: “We each got an orange and a wooden button, and it was the best Christmas ever!”—but they envy the inherent meaningfulness of Laura and Mary’s lives, these pioneer children who were never stuck at a birthday party sticking foam die-cuts to a visor with tacky glue. Even my own childhood now feels quaintly creative. We did not have endless bags of rainbow-colored chenille stems to bend and discard; we had my dad’s actual white pipe cleaners, and you could take just enough to shape a pair of glasses—five—before he’d notice them missing. We had rubber bands and tinfoil and 101 Uses for a Dead Cat, which I read while laughing Fiddle Faddle out of my nose.

Which is not so different from my kids. Ben can spend an entire day reading Far Side comics in his pajamas or picking Brandi Carlile songs out on the piano. Birdy eventually thuds to the carpet for her cat-talking, fan-watching stupor, and is motivated by this act of gravity to get out the colored pencils and draw a picture of her Care Bears jigsaw puzzle. Then she builds a Lego battleship. Then she wanders outside to arrange bark and moss into a house for the fairies, which she situates next to a toadstool “in case it rains and they need an umbrella.”

I am not trying to sound like one of those crafty-mama blogs that makes you want to kill yourself, the kind you bookmark one day because you think that putting out a wooden bowl of felt gnomes sounds like a good idea (“felt gnomes?” you add vaguely to your to do list), but then you unbookmark it the next when you realize that the bowl is supposed to get refilled every morning with a different inspiring and wool-based activity and it is just too fucking much to deal with. And yet. You do have to learn boredom, learn to live with it, to manage it with the power of your own mind, without recourse to video games or bungee jumping or sniffing glue or starting a nuclear war or date raping your roommate’s girlfriend. The most dangerous people we know are the least able to sit still, to be inside an absence of motion: they are the most inclined to leave their families, to be addicts, to keep the TV on twenty-four hours a day, to kill themselves. But to manage boredom quietly? That’s one of life’s great skills: to allow its nothingness to resolve into wonder, imagination, illumination, or mindfulness, like a blurry picture that focuses suddenly into beauty. It’s a kind of inoculation against catastrophic restlessness.

Also, it prepares you for having kids: what to expect when you weren’t expecting your whole life to turn into Waiting for Godot, with Godot himself turning out to be almost as boring as the waiting. Captive under a nursing baby, you call upon all your car-tripping skills, all your floor-lying practice. The baby poops and cries and spits up in your hair, and it is all one big long meditation, half way between tedium and franticness.

(“Wake me if I actually do anything,” Ben said recently, watching a very long video we’d taken of him as a newborn, kicking microscopically on his changing table.) The baby wants to play Candy Land and Hi-Ho! Cherry-O and some weird zoo game where you’re both dying dolphins, and you breathe in and out slowly through your nose and notice the way the sunlight is catching the down along those ripe peaches of her biceps. The baby wants to read Maisy’s Bedtime and Maisy’s Morning on the Farm and Where is Maisy? and your brain threatens to contract and shrivel into a dried pea rattling around your skull, but instead you inhale the baby’s summer-smell scalp that is pressed fragrantly against your face, (Also you occupy your mind with estimating Lucy Cousin’s net worth.) The baby wants you to sing the ABCs, but like a lullaby, no not like this—here she warbles like Katharine Hepburn calling to loons on Golden Pond—like that, yes, again. Again, Mama. Again. And you sing and you sing and her darkly lashed eyes flutter and close, the beloved rose of her face open and slack in sleep.

The baby, bored, wants first to clobber you with her berserkness (“Booty dance, booty dance, booty dance shakes a booty in your face!”) and then to talk boringly about the cat some more. “He’s pretty Pucely, right, Mama?”

“Please, honey.”

“I know. But Mama?”


“What if Pucely forgot that he hadn’t pooped yet? And then he pooped on your face!”

“Yup,” I say. “That would be something.”

“Right?” she says, excited. “Right? What if he pooped right on your face!

“Do you need me to help you find something to do?” I ask again, and she says,

“No. I’m pretty busy.”

Author’s Note: “Do you think a piece about boredom is going to be boring?” I asked Michael as I was working on this, and he said, “It depends how boring it is.” Hm. “I don’t know,” I said. “It might be boring. But is it weird to be so nostalgic about boredom?” I asked, but he had already glazed over. I am boredom personified, it turns out. Hallelujah.

Brain, Child (Fall 2010)

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Natural (and Unnatural) Selection

Natural (and Unnatural) Selection

spring2010_newmanI’m talking to the kids about the Galapagos Islands because it’s Darwin’s birthday. “No it’s not,” my partner, Michael, interjects. “It’s the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species.”  Whatever. I am in love with evolution, but what exactly happened out at Galapagos I’m less clear about: Dinosaurs turned into Komodo dragons, which sprouted legs and crewed the S.S. Beagle? Something. I attend to ideas in passionate—if brief—flurries of attention; I can be aghast over a headline I’ve misinterpreted in a newspaper story I haven’t actually read. “They’re replacing school nurses with robots!” I might cry, indignant, and Michael will say, “I think that’s just an article about MIT graduate students.” Oh.

“Distraction is adaptive,” I explain to the children. “If I did only one thing at a time, your lunchboxes would be packed every day with air and then you’d never survive to reproduce now, would you?”

No. They would not. Biologist Ernst Mayr summarized Darwin’s theory this way: “Individuals more suited to the environment are more likely to survive and more likely to reproduce and leave their inheritable traits to future generations, which produces the process of natural selection.” Force open your rusted-over junior-high-school mind, sift through your Duran Duran memorabilia, and call this up. Remember? No, not the smooth and wrinkled peas—that was genetics (Doesn’t “Mendel’s Peas” sound like a vegetarian deli? Or maybe a Hungarian garage band.). Keep sifting. It’s the other thing—the pale peppered moths on dark trees getting picked off by the birds. Remember? Or has “survival of the fittest” kind of blurred into “Manifest Destiny,” and now it gives you a bad white-people-giving-away-free!-small-pox-blankets feeling to recall it? It’s not like that. Nor does survival of the fittest really have a fitness component—it doesn’t mean that your daughter’s ropey and muscled karate instructor will thrive to birth a million babies like a sea turtle while you, with your giant corduroy thighs rubbing together with a shkrrr-shkrrr sound (I’m just imagining here) will drop immediately dead; it’s more like genetic calisthenics. Which is why the term “reproductive success” has nothing to do with foreplay, Tantric ecstasy, or simultaneous climaxing. It’s about whether particular traits help a particular organism live long enough to produce offspring. Your husband could do you from behind while you were bent over to sort the Tupperware drawer. And if you got pregnant and passed along your organizational skills to your offspring? Evolutionary Bingo! Reproductive success.

But for now, the kids and I stick to our conversations about various visible traits and how they might be adaptive, and let me say this: If you live in the world as a student of natural selection, you will never be bored. The children study the eyes of animals to determine if they’re predators or prey. Prey have those nervous side eyes, usually with the big nervous ears, twitching and swiveling all around to see who’s coming to eat them and from where; picture a bunny, a mouse, Bambi’s dead mother. Predators’ eyes stare out from the front of their heads. “The better to chase you with, my dear,” ten-year-old Ben says in his best Big Bad Wolf voice, even though we humans are predators, too (except for maybe your one cousin with the nervous side eyes whom you feel a strange urge to chase).

We stroke our pussycat and analyze him for adaptivity: fur to keep him warm, of course; whiskers to avoid bumping into nighttime doorways; and what about purring? We don’t know. “It makes you want to take care of him,” Ben hypothesizes, which is so totally true. I picture the kittens turning on their irresistible little motors, the mother cat thinking, “Oh, fine,” and rolling over to expose her rows of exhausted teats. I picture my babies smiling up at me at the exact moment I was contemplating how discreetly to rid myself of them; I picture myself weeping instead, spilling over with love, and yoinking a milky boob from my nightgown. They’ve actually studied this—the way babies’ smiles trigger massive hits of dopamine and oxytocin in their parents, biological and adoptive both. Street drugs could kill you, but nature’s drugs might just keep you alive.

“Being cute is adaptive,” six-year-old Birdy says, as if reading my mind. She’s thinking still about the pussycat, but I’m thinking about her: the big eyes, the helpless littleness, the wobbly dependence.

I kiss her plummy cheeks and say, “It is.”

“So is being beautiful,” Ben says, hair falling around his face like dark silk, his lips the color of berries. “Like the male hummingbirds.” We watched one at the feeder all summer: a head sleeked over with emerald feathers, the neck banded in iridescence. I’m sure the girls were going crazy. I picture the scarlet cardinal seducing his fawn-colored mate, male peacocks fanning the riot of their tails, the hot crimson wattles of a cock. Why the human equivalent is a boozy grin from a barstool remains a mystery. At least to me.

But sex is a big part of it, right? All the pleasure-rigged engineering that keeps the species from extinction, all the stinky snatches of body hair like so much pheromonal quicksand, the blood rushing hither and yon in its tumescent quest for continuity. “Enjoy it,” I like to tease Michael, nudely. “I’m going to be done with this after menopause.” If it were adaptive for us to have sex for our entire lives, would our coochies really dry up like that at a certain point? Is Viagra an adaptive invention—everyone’s grandpa running around with a four-hour woody? I don’t know. I don’t understand the relationship between technology and nature. Because as it is, I never feel more special—in the species sense—than when I’m ovulating. That pull towards sex then? It’s pure animal survival. Michael is always thrilled, if a little daunted—that growled “fuck me” emanating adaptively from the very throat of my DNA.

Of course the danger here is that evolutionary arguments, rather than remaining the grand, analytical riddles that they are, get mustered to justify various patterns of domination: Women should suckle everybody; gay people should concede the barren hydraulics of their coupling; pregnancy should end in birth. Gender inequality; the Defense of Marriage Act; threats to Roe v. Wade. Danger, danger, danger. That’s why you have to get kids with the program, and get them there early and inarguably.

“Clearly,” I explain, “we’ve adapted to the point where, whether we’re gay or straight, we understand how to have or not have babies, which is the most healthy thing for human beings.” Reproductive technology is adaptive for replicating the species; reproductive freedom is adaptive for women’s health and population control. It makes perfect sense to the kids, in the same way that justice and helping other people also makes perfect evolutionary sense to them. (We see where rugged individualism has gotten us: a world of drowning polar bears, slave labor, illness, the bogglingly unjust distribution of wealth, of poverty.)

“Also karate,” Birdy says. “Karate is totally adaptive for girls and women because it keeps you”—here she kicks her leg out and aiiiiiiis fiercely—”safe.” Indeed. Mostly, though, we speak not in philosophical abstractions, but in the interest of solving an endless series of evolutionary logic puzzles. Maybe it’s the way other families talk about God: We are awestruck. Milkweed blows far and wide, a botanical Don Juan, we conclude. Acorns thunk straight down beneath the sheltering oaks. “They must grow better if they’re close to their moms, ” Birdy theorizes from my lap. A pomegranate stuns us, its seeds packed together like a ruby-filled auditorium. “Maybe it attracts the birds so that the tree can get them to poop out its seeds all over the place.” Probably it does.

“Poor berries,” Ben sighs. “They didn’t plan on the sewer system, all us humans just flushing their seeds down.” I picture—but don’t mention—the related phenomenon of jizz-soaked teenaged Kleenex, like so much potential life sneezed away. Ben thinks for a minute, toilets flushing over his head like light bulbs, then asks, “What about poop?”

I laugh. “What about poop?” It’s a favorite topic of conversation.

“Why does poop smell bad, do you think?” When I lob over the classic parental Why do you think poop smells bad? he says, “Probably so you won’t eat it.” We picture an entire race of sickened people dying off, their poop smelling like Rice Krispie Treats.

But really? Evolution is nature at its most enchanted: the beaker of science fizzing over with magic. It is logic and mystery, life and death, the omniscience of a god, but without the burning-in-hell morality. Without any morality at all, actually. Ben, considering our resident swivel-headed, night-vision barn owl and the big-eared, nose-twitching mice, muses, “Nature just lets them duke it out. They both adapted for what they need—chasing or getting away—and then they just do their best.”

And so do we, given that we are programmed to be here and then not—to die one day, despite how ferociously attached we may be to life. At the top of a fire tower, after a gorgeous and vigorous hike, Ben wondered recently about death. “It’s funny,” he said. “I mean, it’s obviously adaptive for the species as a whole for people to die. Otherwise you’d just have, like, a bazillion people everywhere, fighting over everything. But then, how did nature select for death? Because dead people? They were dead. They couldn’t exactly pass along the dying trait.” Holy necrophilia. Although he’s more right than he might know: Programmed cell death is one of the least well-understood biological traits; cells don’t have to die, but they do.

“Whoa,” says a fellow hiker, a stranger to us, raising his disturbed eyebrows at my pretty, pink-cheeked son. “Deep.”

When I ask Ben what has prompted this revelation, he says, “Being kind of tempted to jump off the fire tower.” Oh. “But then knowing I would die if I did. I guess it’s adaptive for me personally to not want to die.” I guess it is. I think about teenagers everywhere, the danger that their will to thrive will ebb treacherously away. And I cross my fingers and send up a kind of evolutionary prayer. We may be programmed to desire that our offspring live to reproduce themselves—but it just feels like love.

Author’s Note: I love the idea of Lamarckism: the so-called “soft” theory of evolution that allows for acquired characteristics to be passed on to offspring—a theory that gets regularly debunked and resurrected. I like to willfully misinterpret it to mean that my children, born of two half-Jews, will pass on a genetic love of frying latkes in bacon grease. My father likes to willfully misinterpret it to explain the impatience I inherited from growing up in an impatient household. “Your mother—always craning her nosy head around,” a giraffe probably said to his kid at some point. “You get your long neck from her.”

Brain, Child (Spring 2010)

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