Tuesday, May 31, 2005


So, besides my musings on in-laws and tradition and which traditions to keep and incorporate into our family vs. which traditions to leave behind, and how to do that kindly...besides that, the Tulip Festival has left us with another lingering set of issues: GI issues. Yes! When you get 40 people together, mostly kids, mostly staying under the same roof with one bathroom, everyone goes home with a little something special, a gift that keeps on giving. In our case the first to fall was The Tall Doctor, who took his first sick day in three years last week after spending a wretched night on the couch, springing up to sprint to the bathroom at half-hour intervals. He lost visible weight, and inched around the next day looking hollow-eyed and haunted, at least until noon, when he proceeded to drink two litres of V8 and pronounced himself better. Then The Urplet got fussy and furious by turns, and ran a low-grade fever for two days, which made us very nervous, because when he was three weeks old he actually managed to get septic and spend a week in the hospital on a nasty cocktail of IV antibiotics, so now we are quick to jump when it comes to him and fever. But he stayed below the magic number of 101.7, which is the point at which you're in trouble with newborns, and today is fat and pink and so cheerful he won't sleep. Then The Rabbit woke up from a nap three days ago with those glassy, dark-circled feverish eyes, and those pink cheeks which are always described as "hectic" in novels about consumptives, and that cuddly limpness which only sickness can generate in a two year old. Of curse it was the first day of a long weekend, so The Tall Doctor and I practiced a little home medicine (does come in handy sometimes, being able to diagnose otitis myself) and pronounced him fit to play in the yard. But he was still sick today, so off to the pediatrician we went, The Rabbit insisting he help tote the infant seat into the office.

Everyone was pronounced a going concern, though virus-ridden, and we are home now with videos and juice and soft pajamas and a stack of library books. There's something kind of cozy about getting to abandon the usual schedule of playdates and improving activities (alas, we were going to the Museum of Natural History this morning, which one of my friend's children call, "The Dead Zoo") and just wallowing in television and sugary drinks and cuddles. It reminds me of the most peaceful afternoons of my childhood, with the pink blanket smoothed on my bed and the vaporizer steaming and tinned mandarin oranges being brought in on a tray by my longsuffering mother and library books piled by my bed. The whole world narrowed down to the bedroom, in a soothing way; the burden set down for a day.

For a day. Then it all gets claustrophobic as can be, and everyone gets restless, and Mama feels like she's been stuck in the playroom changing nasty viral diapers and watching Bear in the Big Blue House since time immemorial, and the baby screeches and will not be comforted and the toddler becomes incessant and demands book after book (Danny and the Dinosaur, anyone? The most boring book ever written), and it all goes to hell. That hasn't quite happened yet for us, but we could yet get there: I'd say we are currently poised somewhere between cozy and purgatorial, and holding.

Oh, and there's me. Did I mention I have a toothache of epic proportions, and the dentist doesn't come back from vacation until Wednesday? As one of my best and most clever friends said when my baby was hospitalized and our microwave, DVD player and computers were all on the blink, the little disasters always attach themselves to the big disasters like remoras to a shark.

The thing is, I know this is all salvific in its own strange way. I know that the big and necessary changes of the spirit accrue in infinitesmal (sp? I can't spell) increments over long nights walking the yowling baby, or long afternoons entertaining boring toddlers. I know that this claustrophobic, house-bound busyness can be just as soul-stretching in its own way as tending to a refugee camp full of hungry children. I know that, but I don't like it! Really, I'd rather be doing something less boring, more intellectually challenging, and altogether sexier to report. I mean, I know I'm a nurse, but I prefer the kind of nursing which lets you take care of other people's problems, then leave them and go home feeling virtuous. I didn't bargain for the kind of nursing which leaves you on call 24/7 for, oh, the rest of your life, and leaves you with a dreadfully clear picture of all your own failings. I mean, I wanted to live up to my own image of myself, not have God remake me in His. Who signed on for this, anyway?

I know, I know, I'm heading into theological deep water here, but cut a girl some slack. I was up all night, and I've earned a little grandiosity about my exhaustion and ill-humor, don't you think? And besides, my parents are always making tremendous leaps into eternal issues in the middle of the most mundane conversations, so don't blame me: it's genetic.

And now, speaking of genetics, I must go and tend to some offspring.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Hide the Gin, But Not the Crucifix

So after finishing up my last post by remarking on how one should leave well enough alone when it comes to in-laws and tulips, I am now going to NOT leave it alone, because really, who can resist The Pride of the Dutchmen marching band? (And the capitals aren't me being arch, by the way; they're directly off the Tulip Time program. So there.)

First off, in-laws. A dear and lovely woman I know once said to me, "The only thing which really matters with your in-laws is being kind. Not 'educating' them to your way of thinking, not scoring points, not making them see how different you are from them. Just being kind." I love this, and try to ponder it when I am with my in-laws, because they are really very dear people and have a lot to teach me, even if I do have to hide the Bombay Sapphire when they visit. They raised seven kids on a farm with no money, and can feed forty people at the drop of a hat and posseses an unreflective but incandescent faith which has seen them through several wars, the deafness of one daughter, and the abrupt death of their oldest son at seventeen (he had one of those wierd heart attacks young athletes can get and dropped dead after climbing out of a pool one sunny morning). Plus the mother-in-law writes these inimitable emails: "Marietta told us Hank had angel plastic [angioplastic, I assume] surgery yesterday evening. We nearly missed her call b/c we were at the Hymn of the Month program." "Fall is really here now. Our trees are bare but our neighbors [sic] aren't." If Garrison Keillor wasn't already doing his schtick, she could take over, except that irony isn't really her big strong point.

So yeah, I try to just sit back and let it wash over me when we visit them or vice versa, and I try to let the rigor of their lives purge mine of some of its fussiness and whininess, b/c I really do have it easy compared with them. It gets a little trickier now that we have kids, though. I sometimes feel I'm being watched, and that our differences, which we could just skirt before I had children, are now a inching shyly out into the open. For instance, I'm Catholic and they're Dutch Reformed (read: really, really really NOT Catholic). Well, fine, until one starts baptizing the kids ( we compromised; one child Reformed, one Catholic, and we go to one church one week, one the next, and the kids are probably going to be so confused that they wind up Zen Buddhist). And I know the crucifix by my bed and the icons in my study give them serious pause: idolatry, I can see them thinking: graven images: beware! During one visit, The Rabbit was running around playing with a large, brighly colored wood-bead crucifix for babies that someone had given him (who knew they made such things?) and a Tall Dutch Sister-in-Law said, half-amused, "Is that...?" "MmmHmm," says I. "Well, I don't think Mom will even know what it is if she sees it," she says.

Then there's the whole vexed question of how to preserve small children's schedules while respecting the plans made by the in-laws, and the question of what to say when the mother-in-law asks point-blank, "You never curse, do you, Gallaudet?" thereby putting me on the spot. (I just smiled, as if to imply that the question wasn't even necessary, because of COURSE I don't--then I just about lost it when another in-law made a face at me.) There's the question of what to do when envelopes arrive addressed to Dr. and Mrs. Tall Doctor, even though I actually didn't change my name to Tall Doctor when I got married (I just let it go). And there's the question of how to control myself when, surrounded by Tall Dutch People, I get an almost uncontrollable urge to holler, "You know, there's a big world out there, with traditions other than yours: check it out, people!" I haven't really solved that one yet.

I think what I'm getting at here is the question of how to make your own family while participating kindly and even meaningfully in someone else's at the same time. How to help Tall Dutch people preserve cherished traditions like watching the same parade four times, while preserving my children's sanity by getting them to bed at something like a reasonable hour even if they DO miss some family meals. How to let go of my resentment at not once being asked if maybe I'd like to go to Mass instead of the park Worship Service, and maintain a charitable attitude toward the Praise Songs at same, while not allowing my children to grow up thinking that's all there is, or even that that's the norm. How to practice kindness (hiding the gin) and remain real (leaving up the crucifix) at the same time.

If you have the answers to this, do comment, won't you? Enquiring minds want to know.

And I didn't even get to the marching band!

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The Orange City Tulip Festival

Now, I am aware that the title of this post sounds like I'm referring to an incredibly camp nightshow at a downtown club, but actually I am referring, without any irony whatsoever (remember, I'm in Iowa) to an actual festival in a real town, celebrating honest-to-god tulips. Reader, I attended it.

See, The Tall Doctor was born and raised on a dairy farm (seven kids, eighty cows, and I don't know how many acres of corn, wheat, and soy beans) in the northwest corner of Iowa, and his parents and one brother still live there. His brother runs the family farm with his own six kids, and his parents have retired to town and as far as I can tell spend most of their time going to weddings, funerals, school plays, and graduations, because after seventy years there, they know and/or are related to everyone in the county. So naturally they are very involved with the yearly town wingding, as are their kids, and it has become a tradition that on the third weekend in May, all the Tall Dutch People to come together and stay with the Tall Dutch Parents and attend the Big Parade and the carnival and the Community Worship Service in the park and run in the Tulip Time Road Race. It's a family thing, and who would want to miss that?

So we went. We packed The Rabbit and The Urplet and their suitcases and strollers and diaper bags and teddy bears into the Subaru wagon, which seemed quite large when I bought it as a single person, but which has shrunk alarmingly since, and drove six hours across the state to Orange City. The boys were on their best behavior all the way across the state; they slept, watched Bear in the Big Blue House DVDs on my laptop, ran around bare-assed in a park when we stopped in Bledsoe, Iowa for gas (you gotta let those poor little butts air out after hours in a car seat, you know?), and ate their respective snacks--Annie's Cheese Rabbits for The Rabbit, and Mama's Finest Blue-Ribbon Dairy Bar for The Urplet. (Yes, you can breastfeed while the kid's in a car seat, though you will require the attentions of a chiropractor afterwards due to the contortions you must perform to get your boobs to the child's mouth.) I made catty remarks about the lack of scenery in Iowa, and The Tall Doctor sensibly ignored them, and eventually we pulled into Orange City.

The Tall Dutch Parents have a ranch house in town, and we got the back bedroom, the one with the chartreuse shag carpet and the crib and the sewing-machine table bearing a cluster of maroon-and-green dried flowers and a doll with a pink crocheted skirt which I believe is supposed to hide toilet paper rolls. We set up the Pack-n-Play for The Urplet, jammed the rest of the gear under the bed, and got right down to business. Two Tall Dutch Sisters and their families were also staying in the house, one with her two kids, ages one and three, and the other with her six, all under twelve, so The Rabbit had a fabulous time running and shrieking with the cousins (he has 22 first cousins on that side, in all). A whole lot of other Dutch Cousins from California had also showed up (The Tall Dutch Father-in-Law is one of eleven, so my Tall Doctor has 74 first cousins of his own), and then of course there were the Tall Dutch Brother's six kids, one of whom has her own fifteen month old now, so we pretty much had All of Rabbit's Friends and Relations to play with.

And we did. We did all the stuff. The Tall Doctor ran the road race on Saturday morning with The Rabbit in his Baby Jogger (I had planned to run, to show everyone how extraordinarily cool a mother I am, doing 5K's three months after having a baby, but my postpartum, terribly uncool brain had forgotten my running shoes, so I slept in with the baby, both of us drooling into a big puddle in the middle of the bed). Then we wandered around downtown and took in the sights, which is an unnerving experience, because the town is so clean and tidy that I find myself looking around corners for the stagehands who must be waiting somewhere to strike the set. I mean, this is a town where the trailers in the trailer park are all painted uniform gray with white trim. A town where the main street is lined with freshly painted Dutch facades on the stores, which all have names like "Woudstra Meats" and "Noteboom Electric" and (somewhat more generically) "Joanne's Thrift Shop" and "Hearts and Lace Bridal." Oh, and the "Koffe Shoppe." In the residential streets, every lawn is mowed, raked, and its borders clipped, and yes, there are tulips in abundance: marching along beside the sidewalks, lining gardens, arranged in tidy beds in the town park. Even the factories (Diamond Vogel paints is there) are nicely landscaped, and politely located just outside town. People smile at you on the streets, and if you happen to be carrying a baby in a Bjorn with a blanket thrown over it, they say, "What do you have in there, a baby?" (I'm afraid I gave in to temptation once and said, .""Actually, it's a platypus; they get cold easily, you know "). It's a very friendly place.

So, after all the running and sightseeing we all met up for lunch in the Monica Society Tent (Monica pronounced with the stress on the second syllable--does anyone know if that's a Dutch thing?) which served, according to a sign out front, Authentic Dutch Food. The menu read as follows: Pea Soup, Chili, Pig in a Blanket, Tavern (what I knew as Sloppy Joes growing up), Apple Pie, Ice Cream, and Pop. I am embarrassed to report that the Large Dutch In-law Children all ate everything, including vegetables, while my one child who eats table food ate ice cream only. I felt people were looking at me and seeing all my dietary flaws as a parent (erratic vegetable discipline, lazy cooking, a tackily laissez-faire attitude toward cutlery) exposed through my child's diet. Sigh.

And then, after naps, The Rabbit went to the farm and achieved nirvana. He kissed the cows on the nose as they were being milked, he drove four tractors and a combine, he played with Bennie the Beagle, bounced on the trampoline, and quite literally rolled in the hay: paradise for a two year old. And I wandere around and marveled, yet again, at how much bloody WORK a farm involves. I mean, I joke about marrying into a family which includes eighty cows, but it also includes people who have the stamina to spend four hours every blessed day millking, and the technical know-how to run and fix all this complicated equipment, nevermind doing the books, sowing the crops, practicing a good deal of veterinary medicine, and running a small business. It's impressive. Seriously.

As was the parade. Well, parades. Actually, to be precise, the Tulip Festival involves the same parade four times (Thursday, Friday, and twice on Saturday), and the Tall Dutch Family goes to all four iterations of same. There's Dutch Dancing by schoolkids in authentic costumes (everyone in this town can, apparently, sew, which intimidates me), there's floats (The Tulip Queen and her court; Northwestern Christian College; Sinterklaus Day; Orange City Christian School); there's the cast of the town musical (Oklahoma this year), there's the old tractors, the fire engines, and The Pride of the Dutchmen marching band, which marches in white wooden clogs. The twirlers wear short white dresses, white boots, and aprons and Dutch hats of red sequins, and the Flag Corps wear black velvet catsuits. Every year they play the theme from The Magnificent Seven, and in the last parade on Saturday all alumni can join in, so you get to see a lot of older twirlers (sadly, not in costume). At the end of the parade comes a horse-drawn trolley, followed by a two boys in a golf cart who remove any horse-poop practically before it hits the street.

Needless to say, after all this, The Rabbit, The Urplet, and I were ready for bed, which we achieved after a bit of a wait for the bathroom. On Sunday we went to the Community Worship Service in the park and listened to many school children in tie-dyed Tshirts sing Praise Songs. Then we went to a picnic with all the Tall Dutch Cousins (someone had, rather touchingly, made a special tuna lasagna just for me, since I'm the only vegetarian there and tend to starve at these things). Then we went home, and made it with only one major meltdown per person. The next day, The Tall Doctor came down with the runs, and I got a migraine, but hey, we made it.

And oh, there are so many things to talk about, but I am going to save the analysis for tomorrow, and just let this sit on its own. Because really, it doesn't do to overanalyze in-laws, or Tulip Festivals, or (to borrow from Franny and Zooey) consecrated tuna lasagnas. It's best to just observe them being what they are, and let them be.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream...

I should be asleep. The baby (aka The Urplet, because of his absolutely historic achievements in spitting up) is asleep. The Tall Doctor is asleep. And the toddler (aka The Rabbit, because who knows why these nicknames happen) should be asleep, but here it is, 10:45, and he's wide awake and asking for stories. Sic transit gloria sleep for mama.

I expect the baby to be up at 10:45--I mean, I try to expect him to be up all the time, so that any actual sleep I get seems a pleasant bonus, because otherwise, if I expect him to sleep three consecutive hours and he doesn't do it, I get all unreasonable and resentful. (OK, that may be understating the case a little--actually, I start wanting to commit hari kari with a spoon. And what is it with me and the parentheses today?) So tonight is a pleasant surprise, baby-wise, because he is currently asleep on the couch with The Tall Doctor, still tucked into his Bjorn (the baby, I mean, not the Doctor), both of them snoring with their mouths open and expressions of consummate bliss on their faces.

Which is exactly what the Rabbit should be doing too, and to give him credit, he's usually pretty reliable that way. I mean, he has his nights when he wakes up from strange dreams and calls for me and then sits there looking like a flummoxed moose in footie pajamas, and when I come in and push him gently he topples back over into the pillows and is asleep before I leave the room. Or his nights when he sits up as I'm leaving the room after the bath-naked-running-around-three-books-song-telling-stories-in-the-dark routine is finally finished, and says, "How about a train story?" or, mysteriously, "I was appointed." (To what, one wonders? By whom?) But tonight, he just plain hasn't gone to sleep. He's been lying there in the dark for three hours now, calling out about every fifteen minutes, and all the stories and songs and drinks of water and Mama-lying-down-on-the-bed tricks have fallen, if not on deaf ears, then at least on wide open eyes. He's being quite sweet about it, and as a chronic insomniac myself, I confess to a certain sympathy for him, but the fact is, he is awake, which means I am still On Duty.

And--cue the dramatic, self-pitying music--there goes my precious three hours of rest before the baby gets up at 11, then 1, 3, 5 and 7, which means I am having all I can do not to respond to the small-voiced calls for "Mama," with wild-eyed rage and incoherent rantings. So far, I'm holding it together, but the 24/7 nature of this whole having-kids proposition continues to shatter any pleasant image I ever held of myself as composed, patient, rational, or even consistently kind. I mean really; I never said I wanted this much self-knowledge.

Hmmm. There have been no outcries for ten minutes now; perhaps I should just go to bed...or will that make me even pissier when he wakes me up...maybe I could use this time to finish my novel? Or catch up on Buffy reruns? Or pray? If I go with the latter, I think it will have to be one of Anne Lamott's two favorite prayers: "Help me! Help me! Help me!" (The other one is "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!")

Will our heroine keep her composure on three hours of sleep a night? Will The Rabbit go to sleep before The Urplet wakes up? And will all the people who say, "Enjoy these days, because it goes so fast" please all go to hell? Stay tuned...

Monday, May 16, 2005

Whence All This?

When I graduated from college, sixteen years ago, I headed straight to Kenya on a fellowship, and spent a year volunteering first with the Flying Doctors in Nairobi, then with a primary health care program in western Kenya. It was a phenomenally lonely and difficult year: I was twenty-two, eight thousand miles from home, completely unsupported by any kind of framework (I wasn't a missionary/in the Peace Corps/with USAID, etc.). It was also an extraordinary year, diamond-bright and diamond-hard. I lived with a Kenyan family in Nairobi ("Oh, you're the mzungu who lives in BuruBuru," various shopkeepers and bank tellers around Nairobi would say--I was the only white person on the bus in a particular suburb, and gained what will probably be my only notoriety ever as such), flew belly-to-the-ground in tiny airplanes (lots of pissed off zebras and giraffes scudding away from our shadow on the ground), hiked Mount Kenya in ratty tennis shoes (and met Husband Number One on the way up), and safaried hither and yon. I watched the Flying Doctor's surgeons operate, helped weigh yelling babies in portable scales, learned to give tetanus shots, and one day, in the back of a Land Rover, I decided this was it, this was what I wanted to do forever.

So I came back to the States, determined to do medical relief work in developing countries. I enrolled in a post-baccalaureate program which promised to turn me into first an RN, then a Family Nurse Practitioner, in three short years, and signed my life over to school. I also fell in love, got married, found the marriage crowded, and got divorced. Oh, and I became a Catholic. So there I was at twenty-nine, divorced ahead of my peers (kind of clever of me, actually, to do it before mortgages and children set in), annulled, trained but not experienced, desirous of doing good works, and in need of cash.

I wound up on an reservation in South Dakota, working for the Indian Health Service alongside my best friend, a midwife. Then I upped and went to India and worked in a hospital in Bihar ("Why Bihar?" I hear all of you familiar with India cry. Well, that's where the job was). I worked in Kenya again; I worked briefly in Honduras. I slowly assembled my overseas street cred, and eventually I signed on with Sexy Relief Agency. Except that before I went active with them, I fell in love and whoops, I'm back on the rez, married to The Tall Doctor. And then whoops, I'm accepted to Fancy Writing Program, and we move to Iowa, and in the last two years there have been two little boys, a nice job for The Tall Doctor at Local University Hospital, a rather wracking job for me at the local hospice, a house, a mortgage, and whoa, how did I get here?

Because I'm Mama now, and I carry the blueprints for my family's life in my head (when do the cats need to go to the vet, which rugs need to be cleaned, which condiments are about to run out, when we need to buy TP, all that shit). And at the same time, I am the twenty-two year old leaning out of a train window in Mombasa and thinking: Yes, this, I have to be doing this. And I haven't quite figured out how these two women are going to coexist in my hugely average, indubitably middle-aged body. I mean, how do I be Mama, and Wife, and lose the parts of myself which must be lost to do the jobs right, and at the same time retain and protect the desires and passions which make me who I am, which bring me joy, which make me a good nurse and a good writer and even a good mother?

Relax: I'm not laboring under the illusion that I can answer this question. But I can go on about it at length, and trace its evolution as my children grow, as I start traveling again (trip to Mali scheduled this winter; more on that later), as I finish the novel that I've been working on for three years now (my agent is going to die of old age before she gets anything submittable), as I find a new job (not so much with the 40 hour hospice call shifts anymore) and occasionally even have a conversation with The Tall Doctor, who has, after all, been in on all this. I'm curious to see how it all turns out.