Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Neighbors Are Moving Again

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I don't know what it is about this city. People eventually move. To bigger apartments, other boroughs, other states.

It usually goes like this:

1. Courtship.

Perfect time to live in New York City. It contains so much neon and glamour and so many bars and tapas restaurants: all sorts of places to take photos of your fabulous new love life and trendy neighborhood-hopping and Autumnal walks hand-in-hand taken by a good friend from the back, all to be posted to Facebook immediately.

2. Engagement.

The love affair with NYC continues. The getting-to-know-you phase winds down: conversations over  bean salad at Turkuaz  shift from weekend trips and tentative confessions about family members to locations and photographers. Some couples put the ring on Facebook, others are more discreet, because a lot of people think it is a patriarchal symbol and if it's a diamond it is most likely mined by a slave laborer. I've yet to see a photo with a caption that reads Here's our ethically-mined diamond and you know what, screw it, I decided I wanted one even though I majored in Women's Studies at Wellesley. 

Maybe someone brings up having kids and the eventuality of needing more space. The discussion is short, because neither person is ready to give up living in NYC. What if you want a Coke at 2:30 in the morning? Let's enjoy this fall walk by Bethesda Terrace -- Oh! This would be a nice spot for a wedding day shot!

3. Wedding Day.

Some people can swing a NYC city wedding, but usually those people have wealthy parents. Others opt for tiny destination weddings and spend big on photographers so they can bring the wedding experience back to their friends online after the fact. That's almost like being featured in a magazine, which is way better than spending time with people you love. Some couples can do both. I don't know what else goes on at the weddings, so I'll move on. But after the wedding, bank accounts are smaller or completely wiped out. NYC is gorgeous and the land of a thousand wonders, but who can really manage a normal life here? First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a hall with no room for a carriage. 

4. Moving Day.

You've found the place. Pottery Barn ensembles, telescopes, normal size couches and Thanksgiving celebrations will all fit into this house! The kitchen has a real counter and there are spider burners on the stove. Thank god we can leave the clutter and confusion and the pigeons behind, the couple thinks. The money, the stress, the sacrifice, the predictable frustration on your daily commute: why is that man's leg touching mine when the subway seat next to his is empty for god's sake? That's all behind us now. We'll have peace and stars in the night sky and wallpaper where we'll mark our children's growth. Permanence. For all the glitter of the Chrysler Building, Manhattan can't provide that.

Your neighbors in the building, the parents of a toddler, see that the lobby door is portentously propped open on a late August day. The stairs are creaking under the weight of furniture accumulated at flea markets. You pass the toddler's mother in the hallway, who is locked out of her own apartment because she forgot her keys and her husband is at a distant playground with the kid, and you nod but you say nothing. Nothing. Finally the mother speaks up. Damn it. Damn it.

-Hey are you moving


Where to? 


Oh, wow. Good luck. 

The mother then goes back to her cell phone and pretends to be deeply uninterested and not at all depressed by this sudden transition in the human makeup of her New York City dwelling. 

Transition. Change. Exits.No warning. All that stuff hurts. 

The mother then imagines a leafy lane and white shutters and a creek and woods and knows that these people are moving on to the next stage, the one at which people feel they should leave Manhattan. Someone is going to get pregnant (the woman, probably) and then they'll need space. Or grass. Or something.


It was only two years ago that we, the couple with the five month old baby asleep in the carrier, rented an apartment in the building.  Ken bought his place upstairs at the same time. He had garden supplies and he was planting tomatoes on the roof. We have nice neighbors, I thought happily.

 Ken had another girlfriend back then. Mara was hip and young with bright red hair. She was moody as hell but a lot of fun. Except then she ran off to build orphanages in Nepal. Ken who planted tomatoes on the roof was single again.

 Karen moved in two months later.

So I adjusted. Sure, I was wounded that the redhead picked saving orphans in Nepal over marrying, settling down and staying with us, er Ken, in NYC. But maybe the new girlfriend was something special. She opens big with cookies and cooing over the kid. She leaves a note on the door from her two tiny dogs, wishing my daughter a happy birthday. We have a couple of nice chats: how do you balance finding nature for your child and living in the city? The public school system? Hmm. 

And suddenly they are engaged. Of course. But who knew a real estate broker had been called? Who knew they were abandoning ship according to the checklist of how people always leave this city?  Neighbors in NYC pack up their emotions with their boxes it seems, even before the boxes have been packed.

It's a near certainty that Mara was the one who got away. Ken doesn't smile at Karen the way he did when he looked at Mara. But hey, life moves on, fancy photos of a destination wedding must be taken eventually, those sperm aren't getting any younger.  Ken did what he had to do. He found someone who wanted the same things. So what if she wasn't the love of his life? He'll have a baby and a leafy glade in Connecticut and their friends will post lots of cinematic "candid" shots of their new life in Connecticut.

What is it about this city? Why does everyone leave? I know why, but it hurts every time. It hurts to watch each stage play out and to be asked what your plans are and to tell people you have no plans other than to keep renting and having one kid and going on about your NYC life. Sometimes you can't take the sidewalks another second -- cigarette smoke and the bumping into people staring at smart phones and the hauling of groceries and the absurd rent check. Other times you know you are the luckiest person in the world to have your tiny cell  in the world's most compact city. So what if the baby doesn't have a proper closet? There are bookshops and libraries to walk to. There's Central Park in fall. There's Prometheus at Rockefeller Center. There's the iconography and the illusions we who live in our tiny corner of Manhattan hold dear.

Maybe Woody Allen was right about the country.

You've got crickets. It's quiet. There's no place to walk after dinner. There's the screens with the dead moths behind them. You've got the Manson Family possibly.

On the other hand, I am not sure New York City is all it once was or is cracked up to be. As we now know, Woody Allen certainly isn't. Now he's a crumbled ash heap of a New York City icon if there ever was one. Perhaps the once iconic symbol of New York is a mirror of his own former love: the city itself.

Anyway, the neighbors are moving again. I won't tell my daughter. Maybe she'll notice at some point that the dogs who needed medication for anxiety no longer bark as they run past our door for their daily walks. Maybe she won't. Maybe by now she's used to the neighbors moving.

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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Don't Call My Daughter A Princess. Just Don't.

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Today my daughter and I entered a dreary little shop that sells everything from cereal to high price hairdryers. The upstairs is devoted to toys. TOYS! They are of the dusty, oh-god-did-a-child-slave-laborer-make this sort, but lately my child has fixated on this upstairs plaza as a dream world that possesses the one thing she wants more than anything else in life: a hula hoop.

Where do you want to go? I asked her. I want to hula hoop! I sighed. I could think of no less enticing a location than the dusty corner shop. But it was not a large request.

My daughter’s hair has grown a lot since last fall, when she asked me to stop cutting it. It flops in her face like Cousin It’s if it isn’t brushed back. We buy barrettes to keep it out of her eyes.

My daughter has a small box labeled Bows in her closet. She loves them sometimes and is utterly indifferent to them at others. The same could be said of every other toy or object or person in her life; she is a two year old. This morning, she was indifferent, and as she finished her cereal I took a comb and swept her locks out of her eyes, using those convenient sliding bows to free her vision.

She had a blue bow on one side and a yellow on the other. We walked into the shop and the manager, who knows her fairly well said hello. Hello! I responded. I’m very nice. Ask anyone. I dislike people who aren’t instantly warm. I don’t understand them. I love a good hello.

Then he smiled at my two year old approvingly.

She has bows in her hair today, he said. They look nice. She’s a little princess.

Oh my GOD, there is that FUCKING word again.

This isn’t about Disney. (That’s another bone to pick.) It isn't about gender neutrality and letting my daughter have soccer balls but not baby dolls (she has both.) This isn't about frills, even, or the word “girly.”

Here’s the trouble: we don’t know precisely what it is about. I do know that I feel MURDEROUS when people call my child “princess.” It may have something to do with its happening 800 times a day. It may have something to do with there being no label that I've ever heard attached to boys. (Not that any child deserves to have an adult label them in any manner.) It may be that I am sick of people speaking mindlessly. What is a princess, anyway?

Let’s investigate:

According to Merriam Webster, a princess is the eldest daughter of a British sovereign —a title granted for life and used only after it has been specifically conferred by the sovereign.

The word’s use dates back to 1649.

It would be nice to be British royalty. This morning the coffee maker was cranky, two of our stove burners were broken and we had to leave a message for the super so my husband can make his morning tea while I make the morning oatmeal simultaneously. This morning I realized the paint on the radiator pole in my daughter’s bedroom was badly chipped and cracking and needed to be sanded before the heat comes on this fall.

I’d LOVE to ring a bell or do whatever it is that British royalty do to solve these problems. They don’t even know they have these problems, of course, as they are fixed without their knowledge. I’d love to receive messages on silver trays in bed and have the sheets washed before they get dirty and whatever else happens in the life of a royal.

HOWEVER, my daughter is not a British royal. Why, then are people calling her one?

Shoot, this is about Disney.  Some asshole at the Disney Corporation decided a few years ago to capitalize on children’s natural desires to dress up in their parents’ clothing and so he commodified it. He sent out the Disney troops to make piles and miles of land-fill crap consisting of costumes.

Why on earth would you go to the trouble of crafting a costume from a necklace found here, a hat found there, if you could just go to the bloody story and plunk down $24.99 for a piece of cheap fabric trimmed with chiffon and tulle and a cheap golden crown and wand, entombed in more land-fill filling, off-gas producing vinyl? It defies common sense to make a child work so hard at pulling an outfit together when he or she can just buy it, for god’s sake.

Trillions of dollars later, we have plates. We have cups. We have Little Golden Books. We have the aforementioned costumes and their junky paraphernalia. And beyond the damage to the planet, we have conformity, in greater numbers than ever before. (Don’t fact-check me on this, I am an angry parent and it feels right. It is intuitively right.)

If you are a princess, in Disney speak, you are Arial, or Aurora, or Snow White or Cinderella or that annoying girl from Tangled. If you are a princess in mindless stranger speak, I don’t know what the hell you are.

That is my biggest problem with the label. You are some strange, undefined thing that apparently every other girl is too, if you are to believe the words of strangers who think they have a right to call you anything at all, which they do not. I repeat: they do not.

I whirled on the manager.

Do me a favor. Do the world a favor. Stop calling girls “princesses.” You don’t know the damage you may be doing. More importantly, I don’t know the damage you may be doing. I don’t even know what you mean, and my daughter doesn’t know what you mean except that somehow you approve of her more today because she is wearing bows that culturally signify her as a girl, and that makes the world a more controlled, defined place for you. Guess what? The world is not a neat and tidy place. It is not a place where all girls are one way. I am so sorry to make you anxious. But leave my daughter out of this society’s pathological need to label girls anything, anything at all. Leave my fucking daughter alone.

Anyone who knows me personally knows this is not only exactly what I said, but it is the abridged version. I had more. I told him he was free to ask her name, to tell her that he hoped she had a nice day, or that we enjoy the toys upstairs. What he was not free to do was call my daughter a fucking princess.

I am not waging war against all gender stereotypes. It’s too much to take on. I have no idea if the genders are different, and if so, to what extent it is biological. I just bought a book called Why Gender Matters, actually. I certainly want to know if there is science to help me understand and guide my daughter with any problems that may arise from her brain chemistry.

The human heart and mind is awash in riddles. Each person has a lifetime of dealing with her own riddles and the riddles of those she encounters intimately and casually. It is, to be trite, the human condition to be uncertain of another person’s identity, which encompasses everything from taste in music and movies to talents and dreams and whims, to kindnesses and cruelties.

We cannot appease our society’s anxiety over complexity by allowing people to continually address our daughters as “princesses.” We cannot allow our daughters to be confused by a meaningless, vague, thorny and insidious label. We must yell at shopkeepers who are brainwashed by a society that is pathologically terrified of letting girls out of the box.

When my daughter gets older, she will make lots of decisions that will reflect the light of the prism we call identity. She may be a makeup-wearer. She may be a soccer player or an introverted writer bent over notebooks in a research library. She may be a dancer or a doctor or a restaurant critic. She may be a street clown. She will work all sorts of odd jobs and stumble and fall and wonder who she is, the way the rest of us do. I don’t intend to allow her private ruminations to be short-circuited by meaningless, soul-gutting labels.

If she does, however, become the eldest daughter of a British sovereign, I expect her to get that heating pipe in our second bedroom fixed. And I’d love my tea on a tray by 7 am
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