Why it's good to have a sister

Phoebe: I can't find my favorite book, Mommy!

Me: Which book is that?

Phoebe: The one about the brother named Robert and the sister named Amy and they go to the dinosaur museum.

Me: ...that doesn't sound at all familiar.

Phoebe: But it's my favorite!

Mallory: Phoebe, do you mean the one about the brother named Jimmy and the sister named Linda and their dog runs away?

Phoebe: Yes!

Mallory: Here you go.

Phoebe: Thanks, Mallory.



On Saturday night, I went with Chris to his 20th high school reunion. I was dreading it, a little bit, because I usually do dread parties – I’m not a very social person, and I foresaw a long night of standing about with no one to talk to.

I actually had a pretty good time.

The open bar helped.

But seriously – it wasn’t bad. There were, of course, a few people there I already knew; I also spent a chunk of time at the “significant others” table, at which we all talked about the fact that we didn’t know anyone there, that being the nature of such events. I showed people pictures of the girls, and admired the pictures of other kids. I talked with people about work, and children, and movies, and the economy.

Even though I didn’t grow up with these people, I could make guesses about where they stood, twenty years ago, in the high school hierarchy. That woman must’ve been a cheerleader; that one was a jock; that guy over there was the class clown; this one with the bad shirt was the guy no one could stand. But the thing is…it didn’t seem to matter any more. Everyone seemed happy to see everyone. Everyone hugged, and chatted, and laughed, and seemed genuinely glad to see one another.

But maybe I just saw it that way because I was an outsider. I wonder if it would play out the same way if I were to attend my 20th reunion next year. Would I still be intimidated by the “popular” crowd? Would people still ignore me because I was the “smart one”? Or would we just be people now, with jobs and kids and spouses and twenty years between now and the days when that kind of thing mattered?

It might depend on whether or not there’s an open bar.



It’s fall, although all that’s falling in North Carolina right now is rain. And more rain.

The fall, or maybe the rain, is making me a bit melancholy. Days are getting shorter. People are getting older (happy birthday, Aimee and Casey!). Holidays are getting closer, and my wallet is growing emptier.

I think of autumns past. New jeans, marching band practice, hometown parades. Being asked to “go to Homecoming” with the nerdiest boy in the class, feeling guilty for saying no, resenting him for asking in the first place. Visiting Lord Byron’s estate on a perfect English September day. Going back to work when Phoebe was three months old, mourning the end of the summer spent entirely with my girls. Dropping Mallory off at the carpool line for the very first time, watching her walk down the sidewalk in her plaid jumper and her oversized backpack. Saying goodbye to sweet Finn.

The other night I went in the backyard to add some scraps to the compost bin. The girls came out and started chasing each other around the yard, barefoot, hair flying out behind them, bare legs and arms just starting to lose their summer tans. The sun was already setting; when they reached the far end of the yard I could barely see them in the gathering dusk. I could hear them laughing, though, loud and clear, the sound of childhood, and sunshine, and sisters, and of all the good things that get you through the bad times.


A roundabout way of saying happy birthday

In August of 1988, we – my whole family – trucked down to San Antonio to move my big sister into college. In retrospect, this was a mistake – when it comes to moving someone into a dorm room, three younger siblings is about three too many. Not that moving into college can ever be a pleasant experience for anyone, anyway. There is the heat, first of all, there terrible, terrible August heat. There are irritated fathers trying to back U-hauls into to0-small parking spaces, or struggling to assemble loft beds. There are mothers worrying about whether you brought along enough sets of sheets. There are over-enthusiastic Resident Assistants in matching t-shirts who smile too much and ask “Can I give you a hand with that?” at precisely the wrong moments. There are stairs to climb, over and over again. There are strangers everywhere.

In my particular family, there was resentment, amongst the three youngest of us, that we were expected to help, instead of being allowed to stay back at the motel and maybe take a dip in the pool. We didn’t want to carry the clothes, the books, the boxes of framed pictures, the posters, the shoes. I got stuck hauling in a stack of pillows wrapped in plastic, and the plastic clung to my sweaty arms and my neck and I thought I was just going to die. My father yelled at my little sister (“What’s the matter with you?”)because on one trip across the parking lot and up the stairs she could only find it within herself to carry a single book of piano music. We were hot. We were grumpy. We wanted Cokes.

Once everything was hauled in to the room, we were just in the way. There was no place to sit. There was no TV. Finally, after the bed was made and the clothes were hung, it was determined that we could finally leave. About time! Except wait – leaving meant saying goodbye. Which, of course, was why everyone was in such a foul mood to begin with.

We all got a bit teary and gave Jana a hug and slogged back to our Jeep Wagoneer. My mom smiled at us bravely as we pulled away. And as we drove back to the Econo-Lodge, I was seething. I was furious. And it wasn’t because we’d spent hours of our lives hauling Jana’s possessions up the stairs in the heat. It was because we’d left her behind. I thought:

So this is it? We’re driving away? So, what, you have a baby and you take care of her every day and then eighteen years later you just leave her in a strange city with strangers? This is my sister, this is the person I’ve spent every day of my life with, and now just like that, we’re leaving her? How is this fair, how is this right? Who came up with this system, anyway? This sucks!

It wasn’t just about missing Jana, although I did miss her very much. It was because I knew that in two years, the very same thing – the moving in, the being left behind -- would be happening to me.

The good thing about being the little sister is that you always have someone to show you the way. I’m glad I never have to be first.

(And that includes turning forty.)


A Clarification

Chris tried to get Phoebe to repeat her "I can't see, I'm bald!" line, with the following results:

Chris: Hey Phoebe, what do you call it when people can't see?

Phoebe: What?

Chris: What do you call people who can't see?

Phoebe: The Not See Guys.

Chris: Nazi guys? What do you know about Nazis?

Me: She means, Not.See.Guys. Not Nazis.

Chris: So if you can't see, you're a Not See Guy? But isn't there a word for that? What do you call that?

Phoebe, sighing: Daddy, I already told you.

Chris: But what is it?

Phoebe: NOT! SEE! GUY!

Chris: It's a word that starts with a b. You say, "I can't see, I'm b-b-b-..."

Phoebe: I can't see, I'm blond!



Eight years ago today, I was six months pregnant, and my immediate reaction to what was happening was a purely selfish one: Please don't let this affect my baby's childhood. Please don't let the world blow up before my child can take her place in it.

Today I was driving home, tributes playing quietly on the radio so the girls wouldn't hear and ask what they were about. Some day they'll have to know about the box cutters, and the towers, and the strange few days when no planes flew overhead. Someday they'll understand that the world isn't safe, that there isn't peace in our time, that some people value being right more than they value being compassionate.

But not today. Today my seven-year-old talked about her dream of opening a restaurant in California when she grows up, a place called "Sweet Treats," where every meal cost a dollar and the ketchup is free. My four-year-old said that from now on, straws should be called "gelactomos," and then asked to do a princess puzzle when we got home.

Most days I take these things for granted -- not just the girls in my back seat, but the car itself, and the job I'm driving away from, and the home I'm driving to. Most days I forget to be thankful that my girls can run and play outside in safety, that they go to sleep without being afraid. Most days I don't stop to consider how fortunate it is that Chris and I can raise them to believe that they can grow up and have whatever they want, be whatever they want to be.

Most days I don't stop to think about how lucky we are all -- lucky to have escaped the bad luck, lucky to be on the receiving end of the sacrifices others have made.

But not today.


Twist me and turn me and show me the elf...

I look in the mirror and see myself!

First Brownie meeting tomorrow. Am a bit nervous. We have four new girls this year, which means four new moms too. I have to talk to these moms and put them at ease and ask them for money (dues, fees) and time (field trip help, cookie selling help). I -- well, Amy and I, as we are in this together -- have to make sure these girls have a good time and learn something. We have some good plans in place, but I'm still nervous. At a volunteer training session last year, one of the trainers talked about all the great things she learned from her troop leader, what a great role model she was, how she imparted such wisdom and taught their troop things that still resonate with them though lo many years have passed...somehow I can't imagine anyone feeling that way about me, in years to come.

Oh well. I guess I should just focus on keeping them entertained for one hour, every other Thursday. It can't be that hard, can it?



Things Phoebe has said this week:

"I can't see! I'm bald!"

"I have servants to make sure that I can always have peaceful privacy in my life."

"Allow me to introduce you to my daughters, Shifta and Jaleesa."

"I fell down and hurt myself! It hurts terrible much. It hurts a million times much!"

"I said no! A-R-G-T spells no!"

"Would you like to sample some of my lip gloss? I have Strawberry Sparkle, Raspberry Rainbow, Cherry Surprise, and Blueberry Sunrise."

"This is my pretend dog Finn. She's a Goldest Becheever."


This Fourth of July -- two days before Phoebe's birthday -- she and I sat outside while our neighbors set off a pretty impressive, and possibly illegal, fireworks show. Phoebe sat on my lap and exclaimed over each one -- "Look! That one's purple! Ooh, that was a nice big green one, Mommy!" In the (sometimes long) delay between explosions, she'd get off my lap and dance around on the driveway, talking to herself, spinning around, making up stories about princesses and moonbeams and magical unicorns. At one point she ran over and sang, "Daddy is the best daddy, and Mommy is the best mommy, and Mallory is the best sister, and I am the best Phoebe, in the world!" and gave me a kiss and ran off to dance some more.

Watching her, I realized how rare these displays would become -- how the time was running out on this innocence, this lack of self-consciousness, this complete joy in her own self-expression. Not too long from now, she won't want to sing in front of me, or dance when the neighbors are watching; certainly there will come a day when she won't think I'm the best of anything. Childhood is like a firecracker -- a bright flash, and then it's gone.

I wish I could bottle it up, her songs and her giggles and her funny mistakes, the weight of her on my lap, the feel of her arms around my neck. But I can't. All I can do is smile, and love her, and watch her grow.



The other day I heard a report on the radio about some guy who played some sport of some kind with some sort of ball, who had just negotiated a contract with some team for eight million dollars.

What got me was the "negotiation" part. I assume, by this, that the team offered this guy, say, five million, and he said no no, I want ten million, and they both agreed to settle on eight million. Now, I know that there are market forces at play here, and there are matters of prestige, and I'm sure it wasn't this guy who said anything, it was his agent -- but isn't it incredible to imagine anyone saying, with any kind of straight face, "No, I'm sorry, five million dollars a year just won't be enough for me."

I remember reading a book about Scott's polar expedition, which posited that the party met their tragic demise because they happened to go out during a season where temperatures were much colder than average -- when it might only warm up to 120 below during the day, rather than 100 below. "One may wonder twenty degrees either way makes any difference, in a climate so extreme," the author noted, and then pointed out that it in fact did -- for example, the surface ice behaves differently; you perspire at a different rate; at certain temperatures it's possible to handle metal tools, but a few degrees colder and you can't, and so on.

I suppose that differences in vast amounts of money is similar, that there are, in fact, things you can do with eight million dollars a year that you can't do with five. It's hard to fathom exactly what that would be, though.

On the other hand...about two years ago I was driving to pick up the kids at my inlaw's house and saw a station wagon parked at the corner of their road. It was still there the next day. My father-in-law eventually stopped to check, and it turned out that the car belonged to a couple who had just lost their house. I've forgotten the finer details of the story, but it went something like this -- they were a middle-aged couple, they'd owned a home in town for years and years. She had just retired, he was a contractor or a builder, someone with a steady job. Then he fell and hurt his back, and couldn't go to work for a while. Then he lost his job. His back got worse; he required surgery. They depleted their retirement savings, trying to pay their mortgage and the hospital bills. Eventually the money ran out, and they lost their house and everything in it. All they had left was their car -- which was paid for -- and a few suitcases of clothes. My father- and sister-in-law brought them some food and other supplies; after a few days the car was gone; we never heard what happened to them.

This was a couple who had done everything right. They worked hard all their lives. They paid their taxes, they owned a home, they saved for retirement. And they lost everything -- everything! -- because he fell down. That's all it took, one slip of the foot.

I don't claim to understand much about the health care debate, but look. When people say that "socialism" shouldn't happen in America, that "handouts" shouldn't happen in America -- no, what happened to that couple, that is precisely what shouldn't happen in America. If a baseball player can negotiate for eight million dollars a year in America, then everyone else in America who isn't fortunate enough to be able to play baseball really well -- they should at least be able to go to the doctor when they need to, or take their children to the doctor when they need to be seen, or to change jobs without worrying about losing their coverage. It's not an encroachment of personal freedom for the government to give you the option of buying health care from them. It's ensuring freedom -- from worry, from homelessness, from catastrophe -- for those who are sick, or disabled -- which, guess what, could mean anyone one of us, at some point in our lives.

There seems to be a lack of compassion out there lately, and a great deal of animosity. There is a desperate need for...negotiation. I hope it comes in time.