What will my kids remember about me?

My sister and I used to joke that we already knew the answer to any question we asked our parents before we even asked it. Depending on the question, it was either, “No,” “Put ice on it,” or “Get a job.”

“I hurt my knee, what do I do?” “Put ice on it.”

“Can’t I have a less embarrassing car?” “Get a job.”

“Can I stay home from school today?” “No.”

At the time, we were vaguely frustrated by it, but my parents were endlessly amused. They would just laugh at us as we protested the unfairness of it all. And maybe a little bit at themselves, since ice was my dad’s version of the dad’s reliance on Windex in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Now that I’m a parent, I appreciate this arsenal of answers more than I ever did as a kid.

Now, obviously my sister and I exaggerated my parent’s harshness, as kids do. I didn’t get everything I wanted, but my parents gave me opportunities that they felt were important. The rote answers that my sister and I joked about were lessons that stick with me even now, and I recognized even then the love that was behind them.

“No.” You don’t get everything you want, whenever you want it. Instant gratification is bad for everyone.

“Put ice on it.” Don’t make a big deal out of physical injuries – scraped knees and bruises build character. We believe you are strong enough to overcome this.

“Get a job.” Seriously. Get a job. Make your own way. No one owes you anything.

I like to think sometimes about how my kids will remember me. Thinking about the long-term helps remind me how I want to parent my kids and course-correct if I’m not going in the direction I want to.

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A few words about 13th

I stayed up way too late last night watching Ava DuVernay’s 13th. You don’t have to read what I have to say about it; in fact, I’d rather you just watch it.

Please just go watch it. Conservatives – there are about 40% conservative interviews, including Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist. This doc does not let Democrats and progressives off the hook, as you can tell by this trailer.

For those of you who are familiar with the realities of mass incarceration and its historical evolution since the Civil War, there may not be a lot of new information, although I will say that despite having done heavy reading on the subject, I learned a bit (particularly about ALEC). I also found, as did some other friends that are informed on the subject matter, that the way DuVernay presented the narrative visually was so compelling that it brought it home in a truly urgent way.

One thing that I have been meditating on recently is a statement from a Eula Biss piece in the New York Times called “White Debt.” In it, Biss recounts a story of being interviewed at the Amherst police station for pasting posters all over town for a talk she and some other college students were hosting. She says, “The first question the Amherst Police asked was whether I was aware that graffiti and ‘tagging,’ a category that included the posters, was punishable as a felony. I was not aware. Near the end of the interrogation, my campus officer stepped in and suggested that we would clean up the posters. I was not charged with a felony, and I spent the day working side by side with my officer, using a wire brush to scrub all the bombs off Amherst…Even as the police spread photos of my handiwork in front of me, I could tell by the way they pronounced ‘tagging’ that it wasn’t a crime invented for me.”

“It wasn’t a crime invented for me.”

That statement reminded me that laws are human creations and subject to human fallibility. Obvious, I know. (“But they are criminals – they broke the law.” No longer any need to racialize our complaints; there is an easy, objective way to justify any kind of treatment of those that broke our laws. But who wrote the laws?)

Beyond this obvious statement, that laws are human creations, was for me a clarification of the insight that laws are created with specific demographic targets in mind – sometimes, as my husband pointed out with the example of the Rico laws, with specific individuals in mind. Those specific individuals are not the only ones caught up in the nets of those laws, because once they exist, they can be used however law enforcement wants – and herein lies the flexibility of making race implicitly rather than explicitly targeted. But the laws were designed to punish someone in particular. The laws against tagging and graffiti were not designed for young white female college students. Clearly not. They could have been charged, but the police recognized that perhaps they were not the intended targets and let them go.

I’ve been talking with some friends who are concerned about the path of the current administration. As I have explained, my position is that we as a country have begun down the path of authoritarianism. My friends reference Japanese-American internment camps of the WWII era, and many other historical precedent across the world and time of detaining people who fall outside our concept of “our people.” They say, Could it happen here, do you think?

I say, It would look like a new law. It would not mention race or ethnicity, but rather a broad spectrum of behavior that falls along racial or ethnic patterns that allows law enforcement to target people based on race and ethnicity. We would fill up our detention centers and jails and need to create new ones, private ones. It would be the same thing as internment camps with the most recent fashionable veneer of legitimacy.

It would, theoretically, look like that.

But then I realize, almost as I say it, with shame and horror, that this is not theoretical, and it is not new.

It is already happening. It never stopped happening.

Please go watch 13th.

On the Defamation of Love and the Politics of Silence

“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

So they say.

Nice is agreeable. Nice is pleasant. But I must make it clear that nice is not love. It is not kindness. The opposite of of loving-kindness is cruelty and apathy; the opposite of niceness is disagreeableness and unpleasantness.

Was it agreeable and pleasant of me to insist on my son’s bedtime, despite his tears? He certainly didn’t think so.

Was it agreeable and pleasant of the enslaved men and women and the abolitionists to decry slavery as an affront to God, to revolt against the slavemasters? The slavemasters, who had the law on their side (after all, they’d written it themselves), didn’t think so.

Was it agreeable and pleasant of Jesus to flip the tables of the moneylenders in the temple, calling them “a den of thieves”? The moneylenders, who were also supported by law and tradition, certainly didn’t think so.

In each of those cases, the nice thing to do would have been to remain silent. There is nothing “nice” about telling a three-year-old in the midst of a temper tantrum to go ahead and get in bed now, even if you throw a “honey” on the end. There is no nice way to end slavery. There is no nice way to throw the moneylenders out of the temple.

But to be nice would have been a failure. It would have been a failure of nerve, of moral courage, certainly, but more than that, it would have been a failure to love.

Niceness is thin and brittle and empty, and when we constrain our definition of love to mere niceness, our love becomes thin and brittle and empty. Fragile, like thin ice. Perhaps you’ve experienced love that felt like that. This is love defamed, defanged, profaned. Its powerful core hollowed out and filled back up with sorrow and recrimination. True love is powerful. It is the ocean. It absorbs everything and bounces back. It will never fail.

So I can’t put too high a value on “niceness.” But silence is not always niceness, and it is not always a failure to love. We must ask ourselves: what lives in our silence?

I am a devotee of silence. I seek it out every day for a few minutes. Every week I seek it out for longer. I sit in it and just sit. Or I sit in it and listen for a still, small voice. Or I sit in it and absolutely revel in it.

And so I am also a connoisseur of silence. There is the noisy, clanging kind, where your mind feels like the inside of a cement truck full of nails. There is the itchy, twitchy kind, where your skin is nearly vibrating with discomfort and your mind darts around like a squirrel trying to hide an acorn. There is the sharp, heart-crushing, awkward kind, when you’ve just done or said something wrong, or you’re remembering it years later. There is the ringing pause before a kiss. There is the settling-dust silence at the end of a book. There is the angry, thunderstorm-building silence before an argument. And there is sometimes, if you catch it just right, the silence of the beginning and the end of the universe, the silence that is RIGHT NOW and you realize that silence is all there ever was.

And then there is the silence of omission. It feels like it is full of hot knives. When something is supposed to be said and isn’t. When you could show up with love and integrity and sit down instead. When you are ignoring injustice, pretending you can’t see pain. It’s how you feel when you turn away from a person begging on a street corner as if you didn’t see her sign, hear her calling out to you. It’s the feeling of failing to stand up for a little kid against a bully, even though you’re not much bigger.

That silence is called complicity.

Complicity hurts. We don’t like the feeling. We urge others to join us there. We silence and shame and shut down; we employ every fallacy and trick in the book to stop them from calling us out. As much as complicity hurts, being called out is much worse. It must be avoided at all costs. So our silence becomes a verb.

Silencing sounds like this:

“This is not the forum.”

“No use offending people. It’s not like you can change their minds.”

“Silly girl.”

“There are starving kids in ___. Your message just isn’t important.”

“You should really read more before you talk about a subject.”

“This conversation is over.”

And the classic, my favorite:

“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Silencing looks like the unfollow button, the defriend button. It happens every time we choose to build out our filtered internet bubble. Bubbles of silence, floating above a sea of pain and need. Bubbles of careless complicity, turning away from love.

So what to do about it? I think you can tell from my vivid descriptions that I’ve experienced that hot-knives feeling. All I can do is recommit, once again, to fierce loving-kindness. To lean curiously toward the discomfort of candor and authenticity. To have a little more faith in the power and resilience of love. To be brave and shake off the lacquered golden shackles of complicity.

So this is what I’m saying when I say I will be loving and kind and honest. I’m not saying I will be agreeable or pleasant.

I’m not saying I will be nice.

This is not normal.

We are becoming overwhelmed.

The daily assault of news stories, some of which are pure distraction techniques, has caused so many people to withdraw, claiming not to want to see political stories in their news feeds. Wanting a filter. Wanting to take a break. Wishing things would just be kind and civil.

It’s OK to take a break when you feel overwhelmed.

When you are ready to come back, I will be here. I promise to be kind, civil, respectful, and honest. Seeking truth has always been my highest priority, right up there next to kindness. And both of those priorities, above and beyond my political beliefs, are currently under attack at the highest levels, and that kind of model filters down to our collective discourse. It’s meant to turn you off of politics! Don’t let it. Politics may not have impacted you before; if the election didn’t do it for you, recent developments signal that everyone’s lives are about to be very affected by politics.

Six days after the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, it’s become clear that we all should have been taking him fully at his policy promises, such as they are, throughout his historically divisive campaign; but more than that, we must armor our institutions against attack from within. I’d like to summarize a few of the most abnormal and worrying developments so far and give you a little context to support this concern.

  • Agencies including Interior, EPA, USDA, and others have been subjected to a media blackout. This level of restriction goes beyond any previous presidential transition and is reportedly “chilling” to employees. It’s not obvious that the order specifically violates First Amendment rights as it is worded, although it does create a (theoretically temporary) barrier between critical government science findings and the public. We do have the opportunity to watch how it is enforced; alternative, unofficial Twitter feeds such as “@AltNatParkSer” have been created by government employees in order to continue providing information that is of “public interest,” which is a protected form of speech for government employees.
  • An investigation into “voter fraud” in “two states,” following an assertion that over 3 million votes were cast illegally. Senator Lindsey Graham (R – SC) stated that this assertionshakes confidence in our democracy.” Indeed, this is a common preliminary tactic in the installation of autocratic and authoritarian regimes, in which shaking trust in voting, the fundamental institutional mechanism of democracy, is a critical step in removing or replacing the democratic structures entirely.
  • The President issued a statement via Twitter threatening to “send the feds to Chicago” if Mayor Emmanuel does not “clean up the carnage” in his city. He has previously endorsed the use of “stop and frisk” in Chicago, a failed tactic first widely used in New York City, which was found to unjustly and ineffectively target people of color. Martial law, particularly targeting ethnic minorities, is also a common tactic among repressive and authoritarian regimes, particularly right-wing, fascist, and ethno-nationalist varieties.
  • The administration is planning to propose the elimination of all 25 grants that support the Justice Department’s Office of Violence Against Women. It would save the government “a little more than one-hundredth of 1 percent of the federal budget” and would defund support to some of the country’s most vulnerable populations, including child victims of assault and abuse, residents of tribal lands, women with disabilities, and children who have witnessed the abuse of a parent.
  • In the first press briefing of the administration, the press secretary issued statements directly contradicted by knowable and reported facts and refused to take questions from the press. The President has also referred to journalists as “the most dishonest people on Earth,” among other epithets. His campaign fueled continual mistrust of the press. As with the investigation into voter fraud, this shakes trust in an institution absolutely essential to the functioning of our democracy and raises questions in the minds of many followers or neutral folks on whether facts can be knowable. This centers his own outlets of information (i.e. Twitter) as an authoritative source of facts. These fissures in the institution of the free press and the attempt to undermine and control structures of information flow in a democratic society are the bases of the classic authoritarian state-run propaganda complex and are a well-documented tactic of authoritarian regimes.
  • According to Reuters, “U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to sign executive orders starting on Wednesday that include a temporary ban on most refugees and a suspension of visas for citizens of Syria and six other Middle Eastern and African countries, say congressional aides and immigration experts briefed on the matter.” A Cato Institute report concludes, “The security threat posed by refugees in the United States is insignificant. Halting America’s processing of refugees due to a terrorist attack in another country that may have had one asylum-seeker as a co-plotter would be an extremely expensive overreaction to very minor threat. Resettling refugees who pass a thorough security check would likely decrease the recruiting pool for future terrorists and decrease the long-run risk.” This overreaction and scare tactic by the administration is known as scapegoating, and besides being, per Cato, an “extremely expensive overreaction,” it provides an external, nationalism-fueled enemy around which the authoritarian leader’s party may rally.
    • Another notable quote from the Cato report: “A refugee from Burundi was detained by DHS for 20 months for materially supporting a terrorist group because rebels beat him up, stole $4 from him, and took his lunch (it’s unclear from the story, but he might have been an asylum seeker).  Many good candidates for resettlement in the United States are turned down for these silly reasons.”
  • President Trump may be in violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which says: “No Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust … shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State,” according to George W. Bush ethics Richard Painter. Emoluments are essentially payments for labor or services. His “blind trust” does not actually fulfill any of the technical requirements of a blind trust, which works on a high-level by putting all assets into a fund that is re-invested and managed by unknown parties. In that case, the owner does not know how their assets are being managed, and others outside of the trustees are not aware that the owner’s funds are involved.

However, the President has simply resigned from leadership in his companies and placed his family members in charge. The use of the word “blind trust” to describe this arrangement is wildly inaccurate and intentionally misleading. As it stands, he is aware of decisions made in his former businesses, and all the world is aware that they are doing business with his personally-designated family members. This puts him in a conflict of interest that could easily compromise national security, as his loyalty is divided between what is best for the country and what is most profitable for his companies.

Walter M. Shaub, Jr., the director of the Office of Government Ethics, expressed his concern that this was not sufficient to avoid conflicts of interest and in response was sent a letter from Jason Chaffetz (R – UT), Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, threatening investigation, which was widely seen as a measure of intimidation.

It was not generally believed that a civil suit could correct this; impeachment, or, short of that, a resolution by Congress directed towards the President, would need to be considered in order to remedy these potentially compromising conflicts of interest. However, on Monday, January 23, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a lawsuit against the President, but while they believe they have standing, their status as a directly injured party is not clearly affirmed by precedent. If the suit is upheld, the President could face a court order requiring him to divest fully from his current assets.

Of course, I’m not saying anything that hasn’t already been said. But political discussion is a marked change in the direction of this blog, and it is likely an unwelcome one to many of my readers – mostly family and friends. Some of you may have voted for Trump. You have as much reason or more to hold him accountable as those of us who did not. Join me in paying close and careful attention, seeking facts, evaluating context, and resisting any attempts – from any side – at eroding the basic tenets of our democracy and human rights.

You may note that I am not addressing everything. There are a number of areas of already-signed and anticipated executive actions that are not surprising in terms of their content, given the Republican Party’s stated stance on these issues. The substance of these issues, and whether or not they are the right direction for our country, can be debated – and believe me, I will debate that. But for now, regardless of your political leanings, I hope that we can all agree that our democratic institutions and rights are worth protecting, and that we can all unite against these threats to the core of our American – and human – values.

How to Sleep, for Busy Mamas

Having a hard time sleeping? You’re not alone! The good news is, science is on your side! Here are some research-based tips to a better night’s sleep.

  1. Minimize screen time at bed time. Upon entering your retina, the blue light from electronic screens will suppress the release of the hormone melatonin and stimulate the release of cortisol, making it difficult to fall asleep. Also, entering into the distorted nightmare-world of internet trolls and local news article comments living in your Facebook feed carries the risk of despair, existential dread, and insomnia, which can be a real bummer for your sleep hygiene. But maybe try this screen filtering app I read about?
  2. Keep your room dark. Even the tiniest bit of artificial light can disrupt your sleep, reminding you that beyond the flimsy walls of your house, evil gathers in the darkness. Try not to think about it, girl – it will do nothing good for your sleep debt.
  3. Start unwinding an hour before bedtime. Set an alarm and create a soothing evening ritual to prepare for sleep. Some people take a bath, meditate, read fiction, or spend quiet time with loved ones. Anything soothing you can think of to distract yourself from the knowledge that there are forums full of men who believe you should be subjugated and silenced forever and are plotting ways to take away your IUD. They probably won’t be able to that, so try not to worry about it and enjoy your bath. You’re most likely going to be just fine and I’m betting won’t be forced to have five more children against your will!
  4. If you read, read a real book – try some fiction! – instead of an eBook. Whatcha readin’ there? What is that, Ayn Rand? Honey, I wouldn’t.
  5. Engage in spiritual rituals and prayer. Studies show that among the religious, prayer can provide protective health benefits and has a calming effect. Also, since only divine Providence can help us now, this may just be your best bet for a good night’s sleep, mama!

Hope these tips help! Sweet dreams, sweetheart!

On Participation and Public Life

The youth leader gives some upbeat directions to the group on setting up the chairs for the program. I begin to pull the stacking chairs apart, finally feeling like I have a reason to be there. A large boy a year older than me comes over and takes the chair from my hands, barely meeting my eyes.

“No, I’ve got it,” I say. He gives a short chuckle and leaves me there empty handed.

I walk back to the stack of chairs and grab another. Another boy walks over and takes it with a condescending smile.

“I’ve got it,” I repeat, a bit desperately. Again, a short chuckle. Again, I stand empty handed, alone, and useless. I feel the fear creeping back in. I am 12 years old.

You see, when I was young, I was very shy. I had developed a fear of strangers and acquaintances over the years. It may have had to do with the bullying I dealt with in elementary school; I have always been a nerd. (My dear young people, being a nerd has not always been cool.)

But this post is not about my preteen struggles with social anxiety.

It is, instead, about how we allow certain categories of society to participate socially.

This was only my first experience with this particular slant of exclusion. I was still young, after all. Like many girls my age, I was taught that I could do anything I wanted, as long as I worked hard. Perhaps even become the first female President of the United States. Oh, women of my generation, do you recognize this message, even the words and phrasing I’ve used to state it? Did you, like me, find it strange that it even had to be said, when you were a young girl?

I don’t find it strange anymore.

These boys did not mean any harm, of course. We call this type of gendered interaction “chivalry,” and many loudly lament its downfall. These boys were taught to carry things for girls (perhaps, though, only for certain kinds of girls, but that is a subject for another essay). I, however, was not taught to let boys carry things for me, as young ladies in the true Age of Chivalry learned. I was supposed to be able to do anything I wanted, and I wanted to carry the damn chairs. I learned through experience that sometimes it’s OK to let people do things for me because it makes them feel better, even if I don’t need help.

Later, I had to learn yet another lesson: I don’t always have to make the other person feel better, especially if it means I feel worse as a result.

As a painfully shy 12 year old, this “chivalrous” interaction made me feel much, much worse. I was not allowed to participate in setting up, and I was much too anxious to make friends, and so I did not participate at all. I hid as best I could, most of the time. In a book, in a tree, walking around as though I had somewhere to go. I was fully excluded. How silly it seems, in retrospect, and how ruinous at the time.

I began to learn, over the next few years, the categories of interaction for which I would receive  censure or shunning from authority figures and peers – manual labor, questioning the premises of school curricula, questioning religious apologia, loud laughter, acting out in class, or talking about science fiction (for which I would be quizzed incessantly to determine whether or not I was a “true fan”). I began to see gendered expectations, but I did not know what to make of them. Boys questioned, acted out, moved heavy things, and laughed uproariously and were encouraged or, at worst, tolerated with amused exasperation. If we tried, we girls, we soon felt the consequences: shunning, mocking, or skepticism. (Manly – bitchy – faking it – wants attention – so annoying – )

These days, I get the most resistance from elsewhere: asserting political opinions. It’s not polite, you see.

But I didn’t really see, not until recently. Why, I wondered, as I spent more and more time in the real world after college, why would it be impolite? Why does it seem as though no one will talk to me about politics? They must be talking to someone about it. It’s clearly important in public life. I had only a few friends that would talk to me about the issues, and even then, it was taboo to disagree.

I learned from my husband about the political opinions of men we knew. About their prejudices. All these things that they would not share with me, they would share with him. Meanwhile, they asked me about hobbies, trips, friends, and family.

What am I missing? I wonder. Why are people telling me not to talk about it? There were unspoken rules that eventually became spoken – that you don’t talk about politics at gatherings, or on Facebook, or ever, ever, ever. It’s not the time – it’s never the time – no need to stir up trouble in relationships. After all, you’re sure to offend someone.

Talking to a friend the other day, we remarked on how afraid we were to make any kind of political statement in this election cycle, especially on Facebook. Someone will jump all over you either way, we sighed with wide eyes, both somewhat dumbstruck, I believe, at the vitriol we’ve witnessed.

I kept thinking about this conversation later. Some people were speaking up, after all.

And then comprehension dawned on me slowly and painfully – why I was afraid.

Women are supposed to share pictures of puppies and babies, not political opinions. Political opinions offend people. Good women are not supposed to offend people. That’s not kind and nurturing. That’s not good for the family. Many female politicians experience this kind of backlash. The ones whose likeability numbers and favorables stay highest are the ones that put their families at the front and center of their image and their rhetoric. Stay on message. Stay positive.

But if we give in to this pressure, we are excluded from public life. We may vote, if we wish, and we may keep our ballots to ourselves. We wield no further influence or power. We have no stronger voice.

So many admirable women are doing it anyway, and the backlash is tangible. But they seem to glow with strength, if only in my imagination.

I have given into this pressure for a long time, but there is no way to be whole if I do not live a public life as well as a private one. Ultimately, I am privileged enough to make this decision one way or the other.

Perhaps the largest part of my problem is that I have this perception that I will damage a relationship by disagreeing. But I have come to believe that this does not need to be the case. After all, I disagree with almost every friend and family member I have on at least one large issue, but I still love them with all my heart. I would die for my husband, even though he hates – or firmly dislikes, perhaps – Hillary Clinton, whereas I voted enthusiastically for her in the Democratic primary. My goodness, how frightened I have been to say that. I believe out of the hundreds of people on my friends list, there may only be two other people who are enthusiastically pro-Hillary. (Let’s talk about drones, some time, though, shall we? I can’t even agree with my candidate on every issue.)

But damage to a relationship does not come from disagreement. It comes from incivility and a refusal to try to understand where the other person is coming from, and that comes from fear. Compassion is not avoiding disagreement. It is leaning into it, seeking out its root, understanding it more fully. Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Antonin Scalia were good friends before Scalia’s recent passing – brilliant, caustic people who believed that the political opinions of the other were wrong in every conceivable sense, but still friends. I understand that friendship. I want friendships like that. I want Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson friendships.

The compassionate thing for me to do now is to live as a whole person, a little more fearlessly, to speak my mind with love, and to feel uncomfortable sometimes, to be challenged sometimes. I am, in fact, pretty excited to ask what other people think about important issues, especially when I don’t quite know what I think about those issues myself.

I want my friends and family to know that I want to hear what you think. I want to hear you out. As long as you’re ready to be challenged and to hear me out. I will certainly disagree with you – I have yet to meet a person I agree with completely – but I believe I’ve learned to disagree in a loving and respectful way. Perhaps we can put some love and respect back into the political discourse, instead of reserving all of our love and respect for the private sphere.

A Hundred Thousand Pieces

I smile as I sit down at the table with a cup of tea and scattered, half-assembled Lego limbs. Our latest Netflix obsession is playing, the boys are asleep, and I’m about to play with some toys.

I think back to my husband’s original, somewhat desperate, promise to Harley. “If you poop on the potty, we’ll get you a toy. What kind do you want? Bionicle? Do you want a Bionicle toy?”

“YES!” cried Harley, with all the enthusiasm an almost-3-year-old kid can muster. A lot. They can muster a lot. “BIONICLE! BIONICLE!”

Bionicle is a Netflix show for older kids. I had attempted to curb his watching of this show, with as much success as any other kid show I tried to limit. Which is to say, no success at all. I’d also tried to avoid bribery in our quest to get our firstborn out of diapers, and it had worked fairly well – to a point. We’d passed that point by a few days. I’ve learned that sticking to my guns on every single issue is an exercise in futility when it comes to toddlers. Try everything, and find the thing that works. That’s my new motto.

It worked – the very next day. Clearly, he was very motivated by the toy. When I picked him up after work, I wanted to do anything but go to the toy section of Target in 5pm rush hour traffic with a three month old and a two year old. But I couldn’t renegotiate now. We had bribed him, he had held up his end, and now I was bound to hold up ours. (And there was NO WAY he was about to forget our promise.)

I was laser-focused once we finally reached the store after sitting in stopped traffic with a screaming baby and whining two year old for twenty minutes. “OK, buddy,” I said as I held Harley’s face in my hands. “In and out. We’re going to grab the toy and check out.”

“Check out what?”

“Pay for it, I mean. We have to pay for it.”

“OK,” said Harley. The baby looked up innocently, as if a moment before he hadn’t been screaming bloody murder in the exact same seat.

When we reached the Bionicle toys, they were all Legos. All the boxes indicated Ages 8-14, or Ages 6-12. I gave Harley a sidelong glance to see if I might be able to distract him with something more age-appropriate, but I knew from his eyes that this would end badly for everyone. It was very important to keep this positive – it was his reward, and he had earned it. He zeroed in on the $50-100 packs, of course. I found a nice cheap one on clearance and showed it to him. “It’s the jungle guy,” I said. “You like him, right?”

“Yes, the jungle hunter!”

“OK, we’ll get that one.”

In my defense, I never received Legos as a kid, so I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into.

We checked out and sat in traffic to get home. Once we finally parked, I swooped in and rescued the baby, for whom sitting in a car seat in an air-conditioned car with dangly toys was clearly torture, helped Harley out of the car, and schlepped inside. Once we were all settled and the baby asleep, Harley asked me – for the 400th time since choosing the toy – to open the box. And so it came to pass that, finally, I did.

I sucked in air. There were three bags of pieces. Tiny, tiny pieces. A hundred thousand pieces, it seemed. I looked up at Harley. He looked confused. “Oh,” I said, in a fake-calm voice. I felt panic rising in my throat.

“What?”

“We have to…put him together.” This just seems unnecessarily cruel.

“Oh, OK,” he replied.

“Huh,” I said. “Hmmmmm.” I took some deep breaths. “Oh boy.”

“Why oh boy?”

“It’s just…it’s a lot of pieces. A real puzzle. It’s a big boy toy.”

“I’m a big boy!”

“Yes, a big boy toy for my big boy.” I looked in his eyes. I sighed again and braced myself. “Mommy will put it together for you. You can help.”

I was all nerves as I carefully opened each bag onto the table and began sorting delicately through the minuscule pieces. I breathed out slowly as little green circles stuck to my sweaty fingertips. Harley started reaching for pieces immediately, as I knew he would – do you know toddlers? They grab indiscriminately. I gave him strict instructions to keep all the pieces on the table and kept breathing as I flipped open the instruction booklet. “OK, OK,” I muttered, as I began searching for the first piece.

I was surprised at my outer calm, and I was surprised at Harley’s ability to follow my instructions. He started echoing my mutters, and it eventually cut through my fugue of careful focus. “Looks like we need this guy,” I heard him say thoughtfully as he picked up the mask piece. “It’s his mask! It goes on his face!”

I smiled. “We have to build the face.”

“Can we build it?”

“We will.”

So I began to make slow progress, alternating between assembling pieces and rearranging the pieces that Harley picked up and moved. Harley found the head piece and put the mask on it. He picked up the part that I had built – I wasn’t sure what it was yet – and started trying to put the head onto it. “I don’t think that -” I looked up at him in surprise. “You’re right! That’s the neck!”

“Yeah, can you help me put it on?”

I have never seen him so focused and happy for so long. He watched me build and picked up various pieces to study closely, occasionally fitting them together with varying levels of success.

An hour later, we had built a leg, the body, and Harley had disassembled and reassembled the head and neck several times. Most importantly, my nerves had subsided. Somehow, despite my initial doubts, we had kept our hundred thousand pieces straight. One piece was missing, which I circled and marked to order later. This impossible project – assembling a complicated Lego set accompanied by a very enthusiastic two year old – it had turned out to be manageable, and I found myself enjoying the process of putting the pieces together and watching the toy begin to take form.

The baby awoke with a fussy squeak. Harley darted over. “Don’t be scared!” he chirped. “It’s OK!” He looked up at me. “He is so cute!” Somehow, despite all the possible points of failure, he was still happy.

Even though there were just too many pieces. Even though it looked too hard.

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We survived (even if my hair did not).