Resisting Transformation

The conversation started at bedtime as Stump, my five-year-old, was climbing into bed.

“I don’t want Smoke to be a teenager,” he told me, “because then he’ll be almost a grown-up.”

This was the first time he had told me this, and I didn’t know what to say. Stump tells me often that he doesn’t want to grow up. He wants to be a child forever. He wants to keep his life. And now, apparently, he was connecting the dots to his brother. If he was going to always be a child, then Smoke would need to always be a child too.

“Well,” I said, testing the waters, “he won’t really be a grown-up until he’s eighteen, and that’s nine whole years away.” This felt insincere, and I sensed that Stump was onto me. Smoke has already been alive in this world for nine whole years and then some. And while that feels like an eternity (who was I before him?), it also feels like barely any time at all. An eyeblink. Just one more eyeblink and he’ll be a man.

Stump sighed, exasperated. He knows his brother’s transformation is inevitable.

“Why don’t you want to be a grown-up?” I asked him.

“I don’t want to go to work,” he groaned.

I listed many jobs for him, but he wasn’t interested in any of them. “Do you want to be a builder?” I asked.

“No, I don’t want to build things.”

“You could design buildings.”

“No, I don’t want to design things.”

“You could sell toys.”

He rolled his eyes like I’d insulted him. “I don’t want to sell things. Ugh.” Mommy was full of bullshit tonight.

“I guess you’ll just have to be rich somehow.”

He perked up at the thought. “Yeah, I’m gonna be rich.”

“Will you take care of me then?”

He nodded.

“Will you buy me food and make me dinner? Because I’ll be an old lady.”

“What?” he asked. He looked startled.

I laughed. “Yeah, honey, I’ll be like a grandma.” I pictured myself with loose skin and gray hair. I pictured myself frail, tucked into bed, like the grandmas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which we had been reading the week before. Stump must have pictured that too.

“No.” Stump cried, and buried himself beneath the covers. I gave him a moment. “Hey,” I said. When I pulled the covers from his face, his eyes were red and tear-lined.

I was so sorry I had said that. I’ll be an old lady. He had started the conversation by telling me he didn’t want his brother to change, and now here I was requiring him to picture me transformed. It occurs to me now that he had never once imagined me changing. In the five years he’s known me I’ve gained wrinkles and pounds, but the process is gradual—invisible to him. I don’t compare to his brother who outgrows two pairs of shoes in a season.

Stump looked up at me. “I never want you to die,” he said.

“I’m not going to die,” I lied. And then I opened our bedtime book. Stump was asleep by page fourteen.

scarry
From Richard Scarry’s Naughty Bunny

Later that night, when I went to check on Smoke, my nine-year-old, he had already fallen asleep in his bed, mouth agape, book half-open where he’d dropped it. I brushed the hair from his forehead as I always do and this time it was damp at the hairline. He’d been sweating in his sleep. He squirmed a little, farted twice, and settled. I felt like maybe I had a teenager already.

*

The bathroom, for me, has lately become a place where I reckon with my aging, a place where I squeeze and examine the new stubborn pounds I’ve put on over the last three years, a place where I assess the bags under my eyes and the lines around my mouth, a place where I apply various lotions and pray for the best. This week, alone in the bathroom while my children sleep soundly, I keep thinking of what Stump said to me–I never want you to die–and for brief moments I see aging through his eyes. Somehow, when I’ve thought about my own aging, I’ve forgotten the most important thing: Death. Instead, I’ve seen aging as a cruel test to my vanity. I constantly wonder why, as I get older and more sure of who I am I have to be distracted by these details of my appearance that I’ve pretended not to care about.

But to Stump, the thought of me growing older doesn’t fill him with contempt. His fear is kinder than mine, grounded not in vanity, but in love.  When I picture myself aging through Stump’s eyes, there is sweetness there. In Stump’s eyes, me getting older means this: I head towards the light, and then I disappear.

When I locate death as the end point of my aging, everything changes. I think of my family and not my appearance. I think not about fighting my body, but about wanting to hold close to the things I most love.

Riot Grrrl in a Minivan

Last Thursday, as I was walking through a rainy parking lot, I spotted a bumper sticker that read Reelect Obama, 2012. I smiled at first, because I thought it was a joke—that 2012 was the year of our next election, and that the owner of the car was suggesting we elect Obama for a third term instead of Hillary or Bernie. Then I did the math, and realized that we’re approaching 2016.

Every day I do math like this. How old am I again? 38. How long has it been since I graduated high school? 20 years. But hasn’t it been just two years since my fifteenth class reunion? No, that was actually five years ago.

Huh, is my internal response every single time. I remain unconvinced. I don’t quite feel twenty anymore, but I’m not sure how I arrived at middle age, and so I keep looking around, befuddled, trying to get my bearings.

My past has been haunting me extra hard this month, and for some reason it keeps taking the form of Carrie Brownstein. Maybe it’s because she has a new book out and so she’s everywhere—she’s on Fresh Air with Terry Gross; she’s on a book tour of major cities. If you don’t know Carrie Brownstein, I’m not quite sure how to introduce you, except to say that plenty of queers like me spent a chunk of our youths standing in line and then pushing through crowds to be near her, to watch as she played guitar next to Corin Tucker. Corin may have been the vocal powerhouse of Sleater-Kinney but she sang to a distant point beyond the audience while Carrie looked into the crowd and danced as she played. She welcomed you.

If you lived in the Pacific Northwest you might have spotted her buying coffee on Broadway in Seattle, or you might have seen her lined up for a show at the Midnight Sun in Olympia. You might have heard that she sat next to the friend-of-a-friend in a college writing class. You might have lost track of whether Carrie was really a celebrity or some kind of distant acquaintance.

http://www.electrip.com/sleater-kinney/1html/showsH/1998shows.html

Though it’s been about a month—wait, I mean a decade—since I last walked downtown to watch a Sleater-Kinney show, Carrie has been reincarnated into my adult life as one half of the TV series Portlandia. A few weeks ago I took up the project of catching up with it in the late evening hours after my children had fallen asleep. (Because of the way that time moves now, I had missed four full seasons.)

For me, Portlandia is part sketch comedy, part internal reckoning. As I watch the show, my ghost-self is always hovering, mulling over Carrie Brownstein and the Sleater-Kinney legacy. Why is she an actress now? When your band has been widely acclaimed as one of the most seminal voices of your generation, what makes you want to set down your guitar and do skits on TV instead? I ask myself this question over and over because it is unanswerable; I am not Carrie Brownstein and so I will never know. Also: I ask myself this question because I am struggling to understand the choices we make in our twenties and thirties. I wonder if there’s a linear process to becoming who we are, a point of destination at the end of a long path, or if there is no true self, just a series of options, some of them more interesting than others. Carrie helps me remain confused by all of this.

Last Thursday, on the rainy evening that followed my sighting of the Reelect Obama sticker, I met a friend downtown for drinks at a bar I hadn’t visited for years. We settled into a private booth and hanging directly above her head was a Sleater-Kinney poster. I must have blinked and shook my head to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. My past was following me everywhere.

For that hour at the bar my friend and I remembered our lives in the late nineties. As we talked, my ghost-self wandered my old neighborhoods: I stood in the crowd as Sleater-Kinney opened a set with Little Babies at RKCNDY. I sat on the floor as Miranda July led interactive performance art at The Midnight Sun. I made spaghetti in the kitchen of my studio apartment with the music turned way up.

I looked again at the poster over my friend’s head, signed by Corin Tucker, and realized that it was memorabilia, an artifact from a bygone era, not so unlike the vintage Beatles lunch boxes and figures that my older siblings collected.

I’ve always thought that the pain of nostalgia is simply the sting of longing to visit a time you can never get back. But that night I started to wonder if it was more than that. For me nostalgia is tinged with regret at having been there without fully having been there. I went to a few shows, but not all of the shows; I bought some of the albums, but not all of the albums. Sometimes it takes the space of years to appreciate how good something truly was.

As I drove home I thought about how just as I pine for my early twenties, I also pine for a future life several years from now where my children don’t bombard me with multiple requests every waking moment, one where work-life balance comes with a little less effort. Most days I’m just trying to make it to bedtime.

And then I pined for Now. I wondered what it would mean to immerse myself more deeply in the present moment so that twenty years from now I won’t feel the same sting. Because that sweet spot that I’m waiting for—the one where both of my kids are young and sweet but not so relentlessly demanding—that will not a be a permanent life. Before I know it, my children will be gone and I will meet myself once again in a home so empty and quiet it begs to be filled with loud music.

There’s a Sleater-Kinney song, one of the first I ever heard, that’s kind of an anti-conformity rock anthem. Here are some of the lyrics:

They want to socialize you
They want to purify you
They want to dignify
Analyze and terrorize you

Your life is good for one thing
You’re messing with what’s sacred
They want to simplify your needs and likes
To sterilize you

(from Call the Doctor, 1996)

When I was young I was suspicious of this track; I could never tell to what extent it was satire of that heavy metal fuck-the-man trope, to what extent it was in earnest.

Now that I’m thirty-eight, I no longer care—in fact, I prefer earnestness. At thirty-eight, I realize that I need that song more now than I did at nineteen, that I need rock and roll while I’m driving my two kids around in a minivan, juggling family and work and asking myself what really matters, when I’m noticing how quickly my own life is passing, when I’m coming to terms with the fact that some day it will all be over, and if time keeps speeding up the way it does the end will be here faster than I think, and I’ll have wondered what I did with it all, and why I made the choices I did. That’s the moment I most need Corin Tucker’s voice reminding me of what I knew as a young adult: that the forces of the world conspire to make you numb and normal, that owning your life requires a battle.

Featured image by Jon Rubin, https://www.flickr.com/photos/jonrubin/687640891

RKCNDY flyer from http://www.electrip.com/sleater-kinney/1html/showsH/1998shows.html