Saturday, July 12, 2008

Into the Woods Takes Me Out of the Woods

I'm slightly insane of late, but I take a little comfort in the sure knowledge it's not bi-polar. My highs aren't even close to manic, more like contented quiet. I watch Eleanor in the zero depth pool and her happy splashes and cries of "Cowabunga!" are all I need. She's funnier than my new David Sedaris book, more satisfying than the funny Nora Ephron collection. In some kind of meteorological aptness, I look up to watch a cloud-show of stormy drama to the north, but the pool and my chair remain bathed in sunshine that's not going anywhere. Not 'til we leave for lunch, anyway.

This post falls in my lap with lovely timing.

I was contemplating psychotropic drugs to protect the kids from the emotional and aural shrapnel of my rages and panicky hand wringing but just the idea that the drugs are out there, just the new doctor's phone number stored on my cell phone, just the option within reach, is enough comfort to keep me going.

I think, "well, what would Zoloft feel like - in the best of all possible possibilities?" and I answer, "I wouldn't care," which can sound very calm and grounded, actually, rather than apathetic.

Because it is caring too much about the little things that blew me out of the water in June - the misplaced wallet, the furious "NO!" from Mia, the realization that the cleaning lady has put a load of dirty dishes back on the shelves instead of running the machine.

But with drugs within reach, so is their imagined aid and I can see myself not freaking the small stuff and sometimes just seeing myself not freaking makes it possible. So I've decided to act like I am on drugs, rather than go there.

Web-MD says with a thrilling confidence and sureness, "Before trying a medication for your symptoms, it's best to stabilize your body's endocrine system by reducing your caffeine, refined sugar, and sodium intake; getting regular aerobic exercise, such as walking or jogging; eating a balanced diet; and getting enough calcium, vitamin B6, and magnesium. After two to three menstrual cycles, you're likely to notice some improvement."

And a holiday weekend night of "camping" with a reprobate and his two angelic children is enough to throw my occasional cussing into an entirely different and harmless light.

Babes in the Woods

Toward midnight, instead of the whine of an invisible mosquito in my ear, we had the persistent echoes of a not too far-off electric guitar solo.

Well, we went camping. A little different than I was expecting. Instead of the desert island solitude of the national park wilderness camps I've stayed at, every slot of grass here was full, the trailers lined up head to toe like a crowded but friendly neighborhood. Someone played Taps on a trumpet as the sun set.

We see no wildlife but tons of dogs, that the girls squealed and jumped to pet. "A Chihuahua! Can we ask the owner?" Our host has brought along his father's black lab who jumps on the girls despite our host's shouts of "Junior! Quit it!"

We pass untended campfires. A post-wedding cookout, the bride and groom still in costume, a green-gowned bridesmaid sitting in the back of a pickup.

Randy wants me to drive the kids the eighth of a mile to the pool, but I insist that we walk the gravel road. This is what childhood means to me, walking the long road home in the hot sun in a damp bathing suit, feeling each dusty step.

My people! Here is the way I spent my summers before adolescence -only our Ozark campground was pitched on steep hills rather than this Illinois plain. Aunt Ruth's house-keeping kept our trailer immaculate. One of my favorite trailer chores was standing on the step stool to wash little plastic cups in the pint-sized sink. Here, I see one trailer that has a red cedar screened porch attached to its side, trimmed with tiki-head lights and the memory almost knocks me over.

But this time, here in a close quarters temporary neighborhood, we were the awful neighbors on the block. Not because of the four kids, who were good as gold, but the Butthole Surfers blaring and the drunken yelling and angry cursing by our host that continued into the late night hours. His wasted friend falls over on top of the smoker and spills the ribs he has tended for six hours. Smoker-Joe said his girlfriend didn't come because she knew she would just end up taking care of the kids. This is a world where children, like the leavings of dinner, are just there, untended. A jar of mayo on the picnic table all night next to the chips, the rolling papers and the hot dog buns.

Sewer gas wafts by every few minutes from some unknown source.

A gasoline tank sits next to the fire pit.

Our host's angry defensiveness and irresponsibility were tolerable, even blackly funny at times when we were all partying and single in Wicker Park. Now that he has children, his drinking and neglect of the children is terrifying. "I forgot to get them lunch." It's four o'clock. "Hey, kids, can you wait a half hour while I do a beer run?"

But he's got some talent and some good goddamn taste in music. He stands under the awning and strums "Fire Lake" and Neil Diamond tunes on his guitar.

Finally, at eight or so, the kids are fed, I'm sitting by the campfire eating salmon, potatoes and tomatoes and drinking a cider as the girls roast marshmallows. (Note - try the cinnamon graham crackers and the dark chocolate and the vanilla marshmallows together. But don't believe your children when they say they want the dark instead of the milk chocolate - so buy both. And have the kids all repeat together: "Don't feed the dog chocolate. It will make him very, very sick.")

Bryan Ferry's wails of "More Than This" billows out from our host's excellent stereo system. Mia says, "those aren't bugs! Those are coming out of the fire!" I look up to see what she is talking about - weightless ashes are flying up into the dark blue twilight sky. Nora says, "I love camp." And, "I love this family. I wish I was with them every day." And I weep with happiness. Because I may be sad and frightened for the children, but at this moment they are completely happy. "More than this, there is nothing. More than this, tell me one thing. More than this, there is nothing."

Our host's children are exceptional. Their mother died when the girl was an infant and the boy, now seven, was in pre-school. The boy does cannonballs in the pool and talks pirate talk - "swab the poop deck, mateys! Avast ye landlubbers! What's the pirate password? Port, port, starboard! Oh no, the giant squid! Where is the sperm whale when we need him?" Here in the splashing of the pool, he is quick and fluid in his speech. "Kids, don't do this at home!" he calls before jumping into the water.

At the playground, I interrupt what looked like some kind of bullying by the campground owner's grandson, (his shirt reads "Get in Line, Ladies"), nearly disguised by a malevolently friendly arm around the little boy's shoulder. When I dismiss the big kid and ask the little one what happened, he stutters so badly he can hardly explain that the big kid actually did knock him off the jungle gym on purpose. "I get bored at the playground," he says, shrugging off the episode. My heart breaks once again.

This is what I can do. Take care of them for a day, ask their father if they come can visit for a week.

We return to our home, I go with the girls to a neighborhood playground where one nanny chases after a girl who is chasing me in our game of freeze tag, imploring her to "Be careful!" Another nanny asks each of the kids on the lot if they will play with her lonely two-year old charge. My friend is telling me of a spaced out woman who comes here occasionally and barely acknowledges her son knocking down the other kids. I want to say, "at least she's bringing him out to play." There's a kind of neglect I saw this weekend that is in another realm from the typical mommy anxieties over scraped knees and pushing. The kind of neglect that is so bad, it is superior to the scary aggressive attention the father occasionally turns on his children.

"Aren't you happy I'm not beating you?" I hear the father call out to his boy. It's past sunset, I've put the three girls to bed and now I look out the tent to see the boy standing by himself by the trailer in the dark. I wave him over. "Come to bed. Here, there is room here, next to me. Here's an extra sleeping bag."

Sometime in the night, the boy sits up suddenly. I say softly, "Sleepytime," rub his back. He turns to me with confused and shaded eyes. He is still asleep. I whisper, "lay down, lay down" but he sits, swaying, bumping his head against the side of the tent.

You know what else? When the girl and I were looking for her mermaid jammies, we found them in a duffle bag full of clean and folded clothes. The boy and girl had new snorkles and masks to play with at the pool. I can leap to judgment, but I saw one tiny slice of this family's life. And as someone who long ago had my home determined by a court decision, I believe children need their parents. Their imperfect, often ridiculous, stumbling, bumbling parents.

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