Memoir isn't quite the word, actually, and not just because most are excessive, self-indulgent, and worthless, while Inconsolable is the opposite. It's because this collection is as much one of essays as recollections, true stories as much as murky anecdotes. Some have been included elsewhere, and others are new and grew out of necessity: in other words, a great writer's need to convey how her world and your world clash and come together, and how often they're back to back, an odd couple of action heroes surrounded by weird-ass alien thugs. Untie me and I'll untie you. Amid the observations and admissions, the humor and vulnerability in Inconsolable, you can trace a line of empathy and skepticism.
Marrit Ingman might be the best writer in town, and her writing strengthens this paper every week. She writes about film, primarily, but also about books, the Internet, and more. She offers a point of view and perspective, which is neither as easy nor common as it might seem. She is sharp, funny, erudite, and her work has an energy that makes other writers wonder why they bother. I am a big fan of that work and of the person who works it, as well as of her young family. Several of us here consider them friends, or at least people we enjoy running into, which is why we are excerpting a chapter from Inconsolable (Seal Press, $14.95, paper) rather than reviewing it.
Marrit and Jim's son I'll refer to him only as Baldo, because she does has inherited his parents' intelligence while building his own brand of it. I don't know how much he knows about his being the breakout star of his mom's book, but I suspect that for now he's unaware that he serves mainly as plot device. If this sounds cold, it isn't meant to be: It's simply that I must make clear that just as Inconsolable isn't really a memoir, it's not the millionth "momoir" released in the past year, either. Marrit Ingman can write well on just about anything. In her first book, she decided to collect her writings on everyday life through the eyes of a new mother struggling with her state of mind. I can't wait to see what she does in her second.
I want Picture People to burn, motherfucker, burn.
Our story begins with Julie, our photographer, who probably got this job by talking about how she just loves kids. I bet she has a niece or a nephew. She's probably very nice.
But if she doesn't get that rainbow-colored feather duster out of my kid's face, I'm going to wrestle her to the floor and shove it up her ass.
Each time she waggles the duster in Baldo's face she makes a great, ululating cry, like Xena: Warrior Princess. I can't imagine anyone being amused by this. Perhaps some children are sufficiently chuckleheaded to smile at her capering, her loathsome propeller beanie, her safari vest with epaulets, but mine is not. Mine has dissolved into a weeping mass on the floor of the storefront photography studio.
There are rooms in back that are quieter, that are full of toys for children to actually handle and enjoy, but Corporate Policy dictates that we will occupy the first room the one in view of the foot traffic in the mall. Presumably, the sight of my child posing with props will melt casual pedestrians into gooey submission, their wallets oozing $10 sitting fees for their own grandkids and offspring. If Julie stands him in front of the blue background holding an oversized Valentine's heart which she actually suggests customers will stream to the service desk and join the Photo Club.
I resent this on principle my son is not a posable Precious Moments action figure built to advertise their services, and if he'd rather stand on the stool than sit on it, why can't Julie just photograph that? but also because Baldo is clearly nonplussed by the pressure. He doesn't understand why he can't climb into the giant, multicolored, camera-shaped playhouse that is paces away; he doesn't understand why Julie keeps crossing his feet. Nor do I.
"Can't we just leave his feet uncrossed?" I wonder, after he sags into a natural bowlegged repose one more time.
"I don't want to get the bottom of his feet." Julie is readjusting her lens.
"Hold you," Baldo sobs, collapsing into my arms.
"Let's stand on this blue paper and look at Julie's camera," I suggest cheerily. I extend my arms, but Baldo is still wadded up into a tiny ball, his feet tucked, tears squeezing from his eyes. I set him down on the paper.
He stays in place but isn't smiling, so Julie ululates and tickles him with the feather duster. Has this woman any knowledge of the toddler psyche? I worry that we appear stupid to the other parents looking on. There are two three-year-old twins with luxuriant, brown, bow-topped hair and matching pink sweater sets looking on as if the scenario is routine and Baldo's behavior is afoul of it. Ours is a topsy-turvy world if Julie's method of relating to children is the preferred one.
Finally her camera flashes. Baldo runs toward the camera-shaped playhouse, and I have to drag him back. He back-dives, tantrums, screams as if he's being burned. He sinks his teeth into my shoulder. I put him down and begin talking to him calmly, holding his hands, trying to untantrum him.
Julie's beanie pops up over my shoulder. "Uh-oh! We've got a biter!"
I glare at her.
She breaks character. "That's, like, only the second biter I've had. He must be in daycare."
I'm going to strangle this woman with her rainbow suspenders. "No, he's at home with me."
"Did you teach him to bite?"
We struggle through the close-up.
"Let's talk props." Julie lobs the suggestion about the oversized Valentine's hearts.
"This may sound peculiar," I counter. "But do you have a broom?"
"A broom?" As if she's never heard of one.
"He really likes brooms," Jim explains. "It'll be fun for him."
Still her face is blank.
"You know, like in the back? For sweeping up?" I add.
"Well, yeah ... I guess we have one. But it's not a prop broom."
"If he holds it, is it not a prop?" I wonder. This blows her mind for a minute.
"Wait!" she snaps her fingers. Julie is so smart! "There's a witch's broom for Halloween!" She returns with a child-size plastic broom. Even the bristles are a solid mass of plastic. She hands it to Baldo, and he begins dragging it along the floor. He won't stand and pose with it.
The twins are still staring.
"This isn't working." I wrest the plastic broom out of Baldo's hand.
"Okay, we'll just go with those two shots." Julie is rejiggering her camera.
"No, this isn't working." I thrust the broom at her. "This environment is frustrating for toddlers. Are you sure we can't use one of the quieter rooms?"
"We have to use the front room first," she reiterates. "We can only use the back rooms if the front room is occupied."
"That's ridiculous. He's not going to just stand here while people are going by in front of him." School-age kids are scrambling past, gawking inside the photo studio.
I pick Baldo up, and we walk off. "Your pictures will be ready after noon!" Julie chirps.
We walk the entire length of the mall back to where we've parked.
"God, I hate this fucking place," Jim mutters.
"We're never coming back here," I agree in the elevator.
"Except to look at our pictures."
We are all hungry and twenty minutes from home. We drive halfway back to eat at a restaurant that isn't a chain. Baldo tantrums in the chair.
I'm really sick of this crap, to the extent that it makes me want to smash shit up, and that's a big statement from someone who is easily placated by pie. I want to see a bunch of crazy parents dancing orgiastically around a bonfire of stupid prop hearts, oversized stars and moons, and industrial carpeting.
I'm going to put a sledgehammer through the window. I want to pull down and shatter all those stupid portraits on their walls the ones with hapless infants strapped into angel wings; the ones with families all dressed alike, like they're starring in some kind of prime-time variety show from the 1970s with Harvey Korman. I want to grind all the fake, forced smiles into a thousand tiny pieces under the heel of my boot. All those generic faces, all those people wearing their cutest outfits from Old Navy, all the prints and package specials framed and hung on tasteful beige walls in McHouses from Scottsdale to Fort Myers. With the same couches and the same IKEA bin of LeapPad toys. All abiding by the same rules: Children must smile. We must not see the soles of their shoes. They must climb onto stepladders or big red wagons and be as whimsical as possible.
All this stuff is family-unfriendly. It's corporate-friendly. Why do we pump our money into this crap? Certainly we love our children. Why do we allow people in propeller beanies to torment them? Some of us know better. We skulked through high school in our Siouxsie t-shirts, refusing to smile when we weren't particularly happy; then we bred and some sleeper cell inside our brains activated, releasing a hormone that makes us disintegrate whenever Hanna Andersson has a sale. Striped tights! We must have striped tights!
What I'm really asking is this: Why is the mall where all the families are?
I saw all these mothers walking around with their babies in Pope-globe hermetic strollers. I had no idea there were so many other people with children in my town. I'd flag them down, but there's no place for us to stop and stand, to talk to one another. We're supposed to roam around like cattle, stopping only to buy or eat or piss.
It concerns me that for so many postpartum women walking around the mall with the baby is their way to "go out." Go out and what? Be isolated in public? Be surrounded by pictures of Abercrombie and Fitch models? Granted, when the four walls are closing in, anything is better than staying at home. But isn't there a better alternative?
I used to fantasize about a giant room with a soft, semi-padded floor, like a gym mat. A drain in the middle of the room to hose down the snot and graham cracker crumbs at the end of the day. You pay a buck or two to go inside with your baby. There are piles of toys, separated into different areas by age. You can plunk your three-month-old down on a playmat and sit and be among mothers. There'd be a coffeepot percolating in the corner, maybe some muffins that somebody brought in.
There will be no organized activities here. You will not be coerced into "circle time." The babies will not be made to play with scarves or clack claves along to some dorky music. And it is clear to all that this is not exclusively for the benefit of your child. This is not some shit to bring out your child's aptitudes or help her get into an exceptional preschool. This is because parenting is a group activity. We are not meant to be sectioned off into little dyads. We are supposed to interact and share our wisdom. We are meant to bitch to each other when we need it, to encourage each other when we need it. The very expression "Mommy and Me class" makes it clear that the baby is the subject and the mother the object.
For some parents, my dream is a reality. A friend who has recently moved to Hong Kong reports that her apartment complex has a "toddler room" for playtime. "Wow," she opines. "It's incredible. Padded floor and a baby ball pit. Lots of toys and books and tons and tons and tons of babies."
Other parents have told me about Family Place, a community center for families in Canada. One Vancouver location offers preschool activities, a toy library, parent support (including a home-visit service), and licensed "childminding" for kids eighteen months and over. The program receives government support from the city and from the Ministry for Children and Families, so admission costs 50¢. Fifty cents. Canadian.
"Family Place kicks ass," one parent told me. "It is one of the major things that I love about living here, that I think every neighborhood in the States could use."
This wouldn't fly in the United States. Not just because we do not mix government and parenting. More to the point is that we do not allow low-key, self-directed play. We have to make childhood as noisomely cheerful and strenuous as possible. Our "family restaurants" have to have birthday whistles and kiddie cups with licensed characters on them. We are to quote a movie I recently reviewed the "Fun Police." If you aren't having fun, fun will be provided for you! We can't allow our children to just sit there and stack blocks. We will regulate their activities so that every kid meets a Minimum Standard of Childish Glee. We will have DVDs in our minivans so that the ride from playgroup to Chuck E. Cheese is as fun as possible! Everything a child touches has to have at least one flashing light and beeping noise. You can't even have a plain toddler toothbrush. No, your toothbrush will be fun! With patented Fun Bristles and Fruit Berry Fun-sation training paste! The strawberries on the tube are smiling! Your diapers have smiling dinosaurs on the waistband! They're so happy to decompose and provide petroleum for your ass!
This shit exhausts me utterly. No wonder I'm medicated. Parenthood is the mass madness that childhood should be a big, giddy laugh riot; rather, it is complex and often frustrating to those who experience it. Childhood does not exist to look cute and move a product. Childhood is an end in itself.
Woe is you who venture outside of the officially sanctioned childhood spaces. People will look at you as if you've stepped out of a spacecraft with an extraterrestrial clutching your hand. What is that ... that small thing with her? Why is it so noisy? Can't she control it? It hurts my ears! You will be deported to the McDonald's Play Place and made to genuflect before a giant corporate clown. You will eat food formed into nugget shapes. And you will like it, or else be cudgeled with a novelty diaper bag.
Where families cluster those commuter neighborhoods the big-box retailers follow. The organic full-fat baby yogurt they used to stock has been replaced with a brand with a Disney tie-in. It's got high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, and "poppin' color crystals" that create a swirl effect. No more bland banana and vanilla these come in Cotton Candy and Bubble Gum flavors. And there's a story featuring a popular licensed character, of course on the bottom of the lid! Another brand offers an "Orange Strawberry Banana Blowout." What used to be a starter food for kids trying out dairy now promises to be a complete multisensory experience, packed with as many flavors and action verbs as possible, lest we risk understimulating our children.
Must our yogurt be so amusing? No wonder our lives feel empty when we graduate to low-fat and all it has is a cow on the package.
To access the yogurt, you will run a gauntlet of greeters who make goofy faces at your toddler and possibly present him or her with a helium-filled balloon. If you are particularly unfortunate, your child will be latex-allergic and break out into a rash by the time you reach the dairy case. If you reject the balloon, your child's tearful wailing will echo from the tire shop to the photo lab. You have become the person you sneered at when you were young and single and knew everything. You are That Mother.
But it's not really your fault. You were doomed by the giant parking lot, the humming fluorescent lighting, the prominent placement of SpongeBob SquarePants, the giant, talking cardboard standees of NASCAR drivers. There is a conspiracy afoot; its purpose is to dope you and your child into grinning yourself to death. And you better smile, or else that feather duster's coming back.
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