Sunday, February 26, 2006

Al's

My sons’ hair is too long and scraggly and this makes me ecstatic, because it means I get to take them to Al’s—their barber. I love Al’s. It’s quiet there.

I don’t know whether the silence is a result of my presence, or whether it’s just a man thing. I don’t care. I revel in it.

My boys, twins, were two when I brought them in for the first time and it’s as though, even at that age, they somehow psychically intuited that men don’t talk at Al’s. Silence for an entire hour. I was in heaven.

They were born with full heads of hair. And it never did fall out, as I was warned by well-meaning relatives, but it did turn red, then blond, as it grew and grew. And grew. They needed haircuts at six months. I couldn’t bring myself to do it until ten months, when it became clear there was no avoiding it. While crawling around, they’d begun to continually bonk their heads on our dining room table due to limited forward visibility.

I cut their hair myself for a while and thought I was doing a decent job, until my babysitter asked, and I quote, “Where do they get those haircuts?”

Perhaps it was time to enlist professional help.

But they were only one and a half. Would they sit still? Would they cry? Would they bite? I chose a Supercuts because it was nearby, but mostly because no one there knew us.

I told them they needed to sit still or they might accidentally get poked with the scissors, or worse—I grew solemn, their eyes grew wide—they might end up with bad haircuts.

They sat like they’d been hypnotized while Rosa cut their hair, a process made difficult by the fact that their mother was taking flash photographs to preserve the memory. I distinctly remember Rosa blinking at me with irritation after one particularly blinding shot. Despite the adversity, everyone survived. They even got great cuts.

We continued to see Rosa for about six month and all was well, until the whole idea began to grate on my husband. (Read: No sons of mine should get their hair cut in a salon.)

“But it’s not like it’s a girlie salon,” I told him. “Men get their hair cut there too.”

He looked unconvinced.

“I’m pretty sure the woman who owns the place is really a man—what with the Adam’s apple and all.”

This did not help my case.

Which is how we came to Al’s, my husband’s barber. Al’s probably been cutting hair at his place on Grace Street longer than I’ve been alive. He’s often nodded at a man walking into his storefront shop, telling me, “I’ve been cutting his hair since he was their age,” while pointing at my boys.

The walls at Al’s are covered with wood grain paneling that’s covered with taxidermied fish, fishing trophies and other such fishing paraphernalia. There are stacks upon stacks of sporting magazines and the Trib is always on the coffee table, but I never read when I’m there; I just stare at the fishing trophies or the stuffed larged-mouth bass on the wall, a goofy expression on my face, secure in the knowledge that neither it nor my sons will burst into a rendition of “Take me to the River.”

It amazes me the lengths a mother of young children will go to in order to find some quiet time. I suffer the irritated looks of other patrons, “A woman? Here?” and the uneasy body language they exhibit as they wait their turns next to me, but they are always polite, and offer up their chairs for me when we walk in. At Al’s, chivalry may be annoyed, but it’s not dead.

When the boys and I leave, I often wonder if they burst into conversation about the game or hot babes or whatever it is men talk about when women aren’t around. I suspect the truth is, they don’t.

After our first visit, Al gave the boys lollipops, then said, as if he’d somehow psychically intuited it, “Now guys, no more going to the girlie salon. You’re men now. You come to the barber to get your haircut.”

Gladly, Al. Gladly.

Education Mom

I was at Jewel the other day when I saw her. I could spot her from across the produce section. Not anyone I know, but I do indeed know her. In fact, I’ll bet you know her too.

Education Mom.

More cloying than Craft Mom, more insidious than Volunteer Mom, Education Mom was there wheeling her cart through the carrots and peppers, and I needed peppers, so I had no choice. I had to get close. Close enough to hear.

“Okay. Breathe,” I told myself. “Be Zen. Be positive. You might even learn something.” I looked at the glazed expression plastered onto the face of the helpless two-year old restrained in Education Mom’s cart. Maybe not.

I swallowed and guided my cart slowly over. It was her all right. All smiles. Talking and talking. And talking. Using that sing-songy voice, educating her little prisoner.

“Look Emily, here’s a cucumber. Cucumbers are green. Can you say green?”

“Emily! Here’s a tomato. Tomatoes are red. Red!”

“Look Emily, a psychotic-eyed blonde woman hitting mommy upside the head with a bag of carrots. Carrots are or—”

Thwump. So much for my Zen-minded shopping experience. I watched Education Mom slump to the floor.

Okay, I behaved badly, but what I want to know is, since when does everything in a child’s life have to be about education? Maybe it happened when Harvard raised its admissions standards, but you can count me out. I want to raise happy children. Children that can entertain themselves. Children comfortable with silence. But mostly just children that won’t turn sixteen and try to kill me in my sleep.

My lackadaisical attitude toward education in the grocery store might have something to do with the fact I have twins. When they were babies, I had to carry one in a backpack and the other in the shopping cart while racing through the store accumulating a week’s worth of groceries and diapers before one of them started crying or my back went out.

The terrible two’s were worse. I had to be faster. It was the only way to prevent an out of control accumulation of unbidden items in my cart. Telling my boys that cucumbers were green and tomatoes were red seemed a lesson best saved for another day. I didn’t have the energy or time to begin grooming them for the Ivy League. I was too busy celebrating each day that went by without a casualty. It was even more cause for celebration if my children escaped unscathed as well.

So I didn’t spend hours waving black and white toys back and forth at my babies, but I do have two well-adjusted boys now. They’re smart. They’re doing well in school. And they don’t need constant entertainment from me.

God gave me twins for a reason. To save me from ever becoming Education Mom. Perhaps if I were alone in the produce section with little Emily, I might be pruning her for Harvard as well as picking the perfect bunch of arugula. And maybe that’s the basis for my irritation with Education Mom; she reminds me that no matter how much I do for my kids, there’s always someone out there who will make me feel like I should be doing more.

It doesn’t change my opinion, however, that childhood should just be childhood—not a constant opportunity for learning or academic advancement. I know all Education Moms must mean well. After all, who doesn’t want the best for their children? For them to excel, to fulfill their dreams, be all they can be. Perhaps my kids’ only way into Harvard will be to buy it with their inheritance—the one they get after turning sixteen and killing me in my sleep—because, instead of being a good Education Mom, I was Lackadaisical Grocery Store Mom, and they couldn’t get into the college of their choice.

Even so, I guess I can find it in my heart to tolerate Education Mom. She’s only trying to do what she thinks is best. But if you’re ever in the produce section and you see a psychotic-eyed blonde woman glaring at you with a bag carrots in her hands, watch out.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Suburban Man

My friend Rick started it.

Rick has his own blog, (check it out at http://rickkaempfer.blogspot.com-it's great!) and he asked me to be a "guest blogger." I agreed. Shortly after The Birth of Suburban Man, there came the inception of City Mom. And the rest is history. Well, okay. Maybe not...


Tuesday, January 03, 2006
The Birth of Suburban Man


“The Birth of Suburban Man”
by Rick Kaempfer

I remember the exact moment I came to grips with my title of Suburban Man. It took me nearly ten years of gradual self-awareness to get to that moment, but it is seared in my brain. I was at a red light at the intersection of Rand Road and Elmhurst Road in Mt. Prospect, sitting in the driver’s seat of my minivan, waiting for the longest red light in the Western Hemisphere to turn green. “You Shook Me All Night Long” by AC/DC, a great rock and roll song from my high school years, came on the radio. And I cranked it.

When that pounding bass and powerful guitar filled the van, I realized for the first time what a great stereo the minivan had. This was a rare outing without one of my three boys in the car with me, and I hadn’t properly broken in the stereo since we purchased the minivan two years earlier. I started singing along with the lyrics, screaming them with the same reckless rock and roll abandon of lead singer Brian Johnson. I bobbed my head to the beat. I had almost forgotten the power of rock and roll. Yeah! If I had a lighter in my pocket, I would have lit it and held it in the air. Rock and Roll! I may have been lost for the last ten or fifteen years, but I was back. This was the real me. This song was speaking to me.



“Knocking me out with those American thighs,” I screamed.

That’s when it happened.

In mid head-bob, I suddenly saw something with my peripheral vision. It was the driver of the car in the lane next to me; a 16-18 year old girl driving a Honda Civic. And she was staring at me. “Kimberly” or “Jennifer” told me more with one facial expression than I had ever been told in a decade of suburban life. I’m not normally a lip reader but I read her lips on that Thursday evening as she uttered one simple word to herself while watching me rock out to AC/DC in my minivan.

“Ew,” she said.

It was an out-of-body experience. I was suddenly sixteen years old again, and sitting in the Civic with Kimberly/Jennifer looking at the 40-something year-old man in the minivan. I could see myself behind the steering wheel, and it might as well have been my father driving his 1976 Cutlass Supreme station wagon. Of all the preposterous sights; my 40-something-year-old father was cranking AC/DC. I had the exact same reaction as Kimberly/Jennifer.

“Ew,” I said.

Reality overwhelmed me at that moment and made me look in the mirror for the first time since I moved to the suburbs in 1996. I’m 42. I drive a mini-van. I have three children, all of whom think my name is spelled “Daaaaaaaaaad” because I’m constantly embarrassing them. I haven’t actually been knocked out by American thighs since the Reagan Presidency. I have a 2 ½ car garage because I need room to store my bevy of lawn care implements. I won’t go into the city during the weekend because the traffic is unbearable.

I was painting an unmistakable picture of myself. I had become Suburban Man.

I came to my senses at the Rand/Elmhurst red light that evening. Somebody needed to turn down that infernal racket in the minivan, and quickly, before some Justin/Zachary pulled into the turn lane and saw the same ridiculous sight as Kimberly/Jennifer. I reached over and slowly returned the volume to its rightful level.

And I have never, and will never, crank the stereo in the minivan again.

The next time Kimberly/Jennifer sees me at a red light, she won’t be alarmed by the delusional man behind the wheel. Everything will look as it should. I may be enjoying a Peter, Paul & Mary song on the soft rock station, but the volume will not reflect the power of the lyrical message. Sure, she might see me singing “If I had hammer, I’d hammer in the morning.”

But it will only be because I’m on the way to the hardware store.

And there better be a parking spot close to the door…





The Origin of City Mom

When Rick asked me to be a guest columnist on his blog, I agreed without hesitation. However, when the time came to actually start writing, I sort of freaked out. I have to write a column? Containing my opinion? About anything? What was I thinking?

I didn’t have any idea of what I would say. Then again, I am the same woman who wrote a 350-page novel. Having something to say, for me, is generally not a problem.

So, I checked out Rick’s blog for inspiration. Good stuff. My favorite bit is Suburban Man. From the safety of the 773 area code, I read about Rick’s suburban trials and tribulations with a smug, self-satisfied smile on my face.

You see, I am City Mom.

Ha ha, I laughed, as Rick lamented his minivan. Ha ha—those suburban stoplights sure are long. Ha ha, Rick got caught rocking-out to some cranked-up AC/DC. Ha-h—

Wait a minute. Could I be envious? Of the stereo in a minivan?

I think about the sound system in our Jeep and— Whoops. I admitted to the Jeep. Now I’ve done it. I’ve admitted to committing the biggest urban parent, City-Mom cop-out: buying an SUV. A minivan in denial.

But I need the Jeep, I tell myself. I need a vehicle large enough to transport the kids (I have two) and the dog (I have one) and all the giant rafts of paper products I need to buy at Costco. And have you ever tried to navigate a Chicago alley in January without four-wheel drive?

Before the kids were born, my husband suggested we get a station wagon. I pretended to be considering it, until a vision of my parents’ blue Grand Torino floated into my head, with a visible shudder. Next suggestion? Minivan, he says. (He’s always been the sensible one.)

Now the shudder transitions to full-blown seizure.

No. No minivans! I am City Mom. City Mom’s are cool. We wear low-rise bell-bottoms. We eat sushi. We don’t drive minivans!

Being cool. That’s what it all boils down to. I can give all sorts of reasons why we chose (Okay, I chose, my husband agreed) to stay in the city. And those may be fodder for another guest blog, if Rick is ever gracious enough to invite me back after all the vitriolic comments I’ll probably receive regarding my disregard, however tongue in cheek, for motherhood in the suburbs. And before any suburban moms write those vitriolic comments filled with examples of their coolness, you should know that I’m not terribly serious about any of this, but, that being said, I am fully capable of driving my Jeep out to any suburb to investigate rumors of suburban fashion sense progressing past 1995. Oh, kidding again. Some of my best friends live in the suburbs. They even wear black.

I love the city and I really, really wanted to raise my children here, but I was surprised at the opposition I faced. Friends and family demanded answers to yet another one of Kimmy’s crazy ideas: Have you thought about schools? What about gangs? How about all crime? I told them my husband and I had lived in the city for eight years and had so far resisted the urge to join a gang, and we’d never once committed a crime. (I don’t think that one incident with the parking ticket and street-cleaning truck should count.)

Perhaps more than anything else, my stubborn nature is what made me refuse to let go of the idea of living in the city with children. “Kids need the suburbs,” I was told. Yeah right. Just like I need my Jeep.

The real reason I love city living is not the restaurants and the museums or the ability to hop in a cab after too much wine at a girlfriend’s house, although I do love all of the above, the real reason is simple. I think it’s cool to live here.

So as I read about Rick, our hero, Suburban Man, perhaps the smile on my face shouldn’t have been so smug. I laughed with him in his embarrassment at being caught rocking-out to AC/DC at a stoplight, but doesn’t my jeep have a Grateful dead sticker on the back?

Perhaps the only difference, other than the obvious one of gender, between Suburban Man and City Mom is the area code. In terms of the quantity of Skittles squished between the cushions of the back seat of his minivan and my Jeep, in terms of petrified french fries under the floor mats, Rick and I are equal. Maybe it’s time we passed on the “baton of cool” to the next generation, to generation Z, or whatever they like to call themselves these days. I really don’t know. That’s how uncool I’ve become. But when I pass on the baton, you can rest-assured, I’ll be wearing my low-rise bell-bottoms and handing it out the window of my Jeep.