Friday, June 25, 2010

Typhoon Lucy, Mauler of Pigeon Heads

Here are two stories about Lucy: 

We’re at the Hong Kong Science Museum, in the basement, playing with some funky machines that blow air and keep balls balancing over nothing and make weird sounds when you hit them with hammers.  It’s Sunday, and the museum is packed. Will has invited two friends along and the three of them pull us from one exhibit to the next at pinball speed.  Eventually, the air and light machines lose their charm.  One of the boys says, “What next?”  Another shouts:  “The electricity display!”  And off they go, Lucy in tow. 

Only when Ellen and I and our 10,000 lb three-year-old boy finally make our way up the escalator to the electricity show, Lucy isn’t there.

I search out Will by one of the circuit conductors.  “Where’s your sister?” I ask.

He looks up, looks around.  Shakes his head.

I find the other two boys.  “Where’s Lucy?” I say.

They both shrug.  They don’t know. 

I feel the momentary urge to gather all three boys together and strangle them with a long, very thorny strand of razor wire, but a mild but rising panic pushes that feeling aside.  I slide back and forth between the throngs of children, searching for my daughter.  It shouldn’t be that hard:  this is China after all, and her hair is the color of honey mixed with sunlight.  But I can feel my eyes shuttling quickly, too quickly, the same way they do when I can’t find my keys and I move from room to room, not really looking.  Where’s my daughter? 

I see Ellen and sprint/walk toward her.  “Where’s Lucy?” I say.

She frowns for an instant, but instantly figures out where this is going.  “Oh my god,” she says.

I sprint back to the escalators, head down toward the massive underground display, with it’s 15 or 16 rooms and six or seven hundred kids and parents and grandparents laughing through the house of mirrors, wondering at the display that shows how the eye works.  I’m don’t even know where to begin.

But then she’s there. 

I’m halfway down the escalator, swearing at the old lady who’s blocking the left side of the steps, when I spot Lucy strolling toward me.  Then she starts to skip.  Skip. 

What happens next, I’m not quite sure I understand.  She’s skipping across the red museum carpet, her feet both leaving the floor at the same time, her hair flying flat out behind her, arms swinging widely back and forth.  She spots me, and changes the angle of her gait, flouncing toward the escalators. 

And just when she reaches the bottom, she bursts into tears.

I’m shocked I have to say.  This is my little girl after all, the kid who likes to eat pigeon heads, pulling out the eyeballs and tearing apart the skull to get inside.  I’m sure of very few things, but I am certain that I’m the only one of my Face Book friends who’s had to tell his six-year-old daughter, “No honey:  we’re not taking the brains home, tonight.”  This is my Lucy, the little girl who likes to play rugby with the older boys, who’s never been scared by any movie she’s ever seen or any book we’ve ever read (as opposed to, um, some other kids in our family who still won’t read Harry Potter). 

But there she is, chest wracked with sobs, snot flowing from her nose, mouth a watery grimace.  I hold her, of course, and tell her it’s okay, and press her against me as hard as I can, and tell her again it’s okay as we go up the escalator.  Her mother’s there, and takes her from me (if, by “take” we mean, “rips her from my arms”), but Lucy continues to cry, huge gasping sobs that thump through my ribs just watching her. 


Back in the fall, when I first wrote about the children and their transition to Hong Kong, I talked about how Will was the one who scared me the most (“Will:  A Grandparental Update,” October).  Very soon, though, Lucy became more of an issue.  First there was the stuff at school, where she’d sit in class refusing to smile, even though she’d insist when she came home that she loved school.  Then there was the stuff later on where she’d talk about scratching herself to make herself stop feeling angry.  Needless to say, that set my little paranoid/worse-case-scenario/Norwegian-Lutheran alarm bells peeling. 

Very little has come of any of this as the year has gone along:  Lucy continues to love school, and when we look at her (brilliant) teacher’s web-site, some of the pictures actually show our little blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl smiling.   More impressive than that, though (yes, our kid can do MORE than smile!) is the smart little kid that’s started to emerge from the goofball that’s always been Lucy. 

This kid can read. 

I mean, really read. 

Will, our eldest, who spends most of his free time at home with his shoulders hunched into a book, came out of kindergarten able to read some pretty basic books (“I can’t find my kite.  Is my kite in the car?  No.  Is my kite in the yard?  No.  Is my kite in the incinerator?  Yes.  Who the &%$@ put it there?”) but not much else.  And though we tried to get him to read over the summer before starting first grade, he basically refused, preferring instead to follow the adventures of Jack and Annie leaning over his mother’s shoulder as she read. 

Lucy reached that same point about, oh, 6 days into Year 1 (the HK equivalent of US kindergarten).  By February, she was picking out words in the chapter books we were reading to her.  By April, she was reading my e-mails as I wrote them.  By May, she was using the money she’d extorted from me as a result of those e-mails to by herself French dramas from the early twentieth-century. 

Okay, so not really:  I’d never give in to extortion (and if you don’t believe me, just ask my ex-therapist—or the Chinese government). 

But seriously, Lucy’s reading random signs (in both English and Chinese), whole paragraphs out of her chapter books, and at night will often read to Jamie when we’re busy washing the dishes or sneaking bites of Toblerone in the kitchen. 

She has a good memory, too:  three weeks ago, we started picking out photos for a post on her blog about our trip to China back in April.  By the end of her first 70 pictures, she’d picked out 51 that she wanted to publish—and she had another 400 to choose from. 

Then for some reason, we didn’t get back to the project for almost a month.  When we finally did, I thought I’d be clever as I posted the photos and delete one or two (or 11) that she’d chose way back when, assuming she wouldn’t remember any of them.

She did.  My little stunt nearly cost me my father’s day gift, which would have been a pity, since it was a wonderful card shaped like a shirt with a necktie that said, “Dear dad I love you!  You are my FAORITE dad in the hol world!”

(Yes, I know:  sacchriney-cute and total brainless breeder crappola.  But given that Will’s card said, “Dear Dad, I guess you’ll do, which is good, because Mom says we’re stuck with you, at least for now,” I’ll take what I can get.   And damn it, who’s to say that hol isn’t better off spelled without the “w” and the “e”?)

So Lucy’s doing fine.  Great even.  She loves school, she’s learned to read, she’s tried a billion new things this year, above and beyond the aforementioned pigeon heads.  She bright, funny, occasionally kind, and always a hoot to be around. 


But . . .

Well . . . let’s put it this way:  Lucy has a bit of a dark side.

It’s hard to know exactly how to describe this.  “Temper” might be a good word.  But that doesn’t quite capture it.  “Fury”?  “Forcefulness”?  “Self-absorbedness”? 

Hard to say, actually.  Here’s what happens:

It’ll be Saturday morning.  The kids will be up before we are, mainly because they went to bed at 8:30, and we stayed up until 12:30 drinking red wine, eating salty buttered popcorn, and watching Kung-Fu Hustle for the 11th time (Best.  Movie.  Ever.). 

Anyhow, when we finally stumble out into the living room at the not-nearly-satisfying hour of 8:20 a.m. Lucy will be lying on the couch, still in her pajamas, looking peaked.  As quick as we can, we’ll get her a bowl of Cheerios, a cup of the really good mango-orange juice we can only buy at the grocery store by the northern train station, and urge her to eat.

Which she’ll do. 

For about 8 seconds. 

Then she’ll forget, and start bugging her older brother, who’s lying on the other couch reading something by Ayn Rand.  Or she’ll forget, and start bugging her baby brother, who’s crawled into the cupboard next to the TV console and is hollering through the crack between the doors, “Mommy!  Mommy!  Come find me!”  Lucy will creep over to the cupboard, rip open the door, and go, “Boo!”  To which Jamie will respond with a laugh.  The first seven times.  Then he’ll start to get annoyed that his game with his mother has been interrupted (even though his mother is perfectly happy to sit at the dining room table sipping tea and reading the paper) and he’ll start to say, “Lucy:  noooo!”  To which Lucy will respond by jerking the door open 15 or 20 more times, making her brother increasingly irritable, and me increasingly insane with her incessant, “Boo”s, each of which is sounding noticeably less playful than the previous one. 

About two minutes into this, both Ellen and I will start saying things like, “Lucy, that’s not a good idea,” and “Lucy, you’re bothering your brother; go find something else to do.”  Another two minutes, and we’ll be saying things like “Lucy, stop that,” and “Lucy, you’re going to be sorry.”

But she won’t stop.  And sooner or later Jamie will be furious, and then we’ll be furious, and then Lucy will throw herself on the couch and scream, “It’s not FAIR,” which it’s not, if she means us having to put up with this kind of crap every Saturday morning. 

Because, indeed, it happens every Saturday morning.  And every Sunday morning as well.  Each time, it’s as though she deliberately sets out to work herself into a frenzy.   And each time, she’s very successful at executing her plan.  After, “It’s not FAIR,” come “Uh!” which we’ll ignore, and then “UH!” which we’ll also ignore, until the fifth time, at which point she’s uttering this—what?  word?  grunt?—at the top of her lungs, emphasizing it each time by hurling her body back onto the sofa cushions. 

Brilliant parents that we are, of course, we’ll respond in a measured, thoughtful manner, generally, but not always, resorting to words like “^%&$” and “#$%@,” and its close cousin, “#$%@@.”  Usually accompanied by threats of groundings, lost allowances, a lack of bedtime stories, and 42 hours straight of listening to Rush Limbaugh pretend he’s not a hypocritical lard-head who used an ACLU lawyer to get him off a drug charge. 

Inevitably, Lucy will be sent to her room, where she’ll scream for, oh, 7 hours, pausing only to sob, loudly, that no one loves her, that she doesn’t have friends, and that, somehow in the midst of slamming a cupboard door in her brother’s face for 20 minutes, she broke her leg. 


The irony, of course, is that many of you reading this will recognize what I’m describing as, well, the way I’ve acted most of my life. 

Yes, it’s true:  I have a wee bit of a temper. 

The trick in that sentence, of course, is my use of the word “have.”  “Have” means present tense.  Which allows me to use words like “wee”:  as in, right now, these days, my temper isn’t that bad. 

Which is true.  These days.

As a kid, though, man, I was a living, breathing, tornado of fury.  Set me off about this or that thing and the top of my head would actually explode, blood and brains and that morning’s grapefruit juice flying 57 feet into the air (I once blinded a duck).  When I was in sixth grade, my classmates voted me most likely to be cast in a video for Nick Ferguson’s “Thunder Island.”

I’m not sure why I was like this.  I didn’t want to be that way.  Losing my temper actually hurt, like someone was taking the jaws of life to my rib cage and pulling me apart bone by bone, sinew by sinew.  When something got under my skin, my face would turn bright red, my lungs would tighten, sweat would pour down my the inside of my skin.  Sometimes it got so bad, I actually had to run off into the woods near our cabin, or into my room, or into the basement just to get away from the situation.  My brother called these “hyperfits,” a phrase carefully designed to extend said fits for a good thirty minutes extra.  But it was an apt term, because what I was experiencing extended beyond a normal loss of temper.

This has faded some as I’ve gotten older.  Some.  I’ve learned that exercise, for me, is a necessity, burning off stress and helping me keep perspective.  And I’ve learned that too much caffeine is a bad idea, though I tend to test the limits of that theory six or seven times a week.  And the older I get the better I am at keeping perspective.  The kids help me with that:  there’s very little that happens during the day that can’t be solved by lying on the couch and holding one or three of them very close to me for fifteen minutes.  They help me breathe better, even as they crush my lungs.

Even so, I have to admit there’s something about me that—well, that likes my temper.  Or if not likes it, at least respects it.  I don’t mean, of course, the moments that my anger is self-absorbed or self-pitying:  the New Yorker rejected my story again; the Packers lost to the Vikings again; I dropped a glass on the floor and have to clean it up when I’d rather be on the couch writing and eating Oreos—going over the top about that sort of thing is just stupid.  I mean, get over it Paul.

But there are other times when my anger is evidence that I care about something that matters, and care deeply.  When some numb-nut faculty member or administrator makes a decision that has a negative impact on students for years to come, and does it in a manner that insists on his own ignorance, I don’t have to respect that.  What’s more, I wouldn’t respect myself for respecting that.  Similarly, when a student does something in a class that undermines the efforts or thinking or learning of her classmates, that student is going to hear about it, and quickly, and in a way that leaves her nostril hairs singed.  As it should be. 

I remember years ago telling someone I respected about an ex-girlfriend from college who was killed in a car accident after a generally miserable life with an ugly family situation and struggles with eating disorder.  The person I was telling listened for a while, then shrugged and said, “These things happen.”

I wanted to throttle him.  I wanted to scream, “Yes, they do, you blurthering idiot”—(I like to use made-up words when I’m angry)—“and stupid attitudes like yours don’t help a hell of a lot, do they!”

What, exactly, I expected this dipstickdiot to do about Marsha’s parents’ divorce or her affection for starving herself to death is beyond me—but it didn’t matter:  when faced with things that are wrong, my reasoning goes, you don’t just say, “Oh well, that’s life.”  You get pissed.  And you fight.

So part of me likes that Lucy is a fighter.  Check that.  Most of me likes it.  I trust people who have emotions, even if sometimes those emotions are a little over the top.  I want my kids to have strong beliefs, I want them to know that there’s right and wrong, and I want them to do something when they see stuff that’s wrong.  Blake once wrote, “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” Damn right.  Don’t just stand there following the rules:  do something:  speak, raise your voice.  Be angry. 

Even so, sometimes Lucy tests my limits.  There’s self-righteous anger, after all, and then there’s self-absorbed anger.   A lot of the time, these Saturday morning fits fall under the latter category.  Or worse, really, since they seem to take my mantra—don’t just sit there, be angry—and turn it on its head.  My point is that when something’s wrong, you should respond, even if the situation is hopeless.  What Lucy seems to do on the other hand, is take a situation that’s perfectly fine and refuse to “just sit there.”  Instead, she riles herself up and everyone else around her until what used to be a quiet, calm, Sunday morning, becomes a typhoon of invectives and tears.

Confusing everything for me is that I’m not sure if this is something she got from me, something abnormal (or both), or something every six-year-old girl does.  I haven’t had any other daughters, after all, and I haven’t really hung around with girls that age for, well, let’s call it 40 years.  For that matter, I’m not even sure this isn’t normal behavior for six-year-olds period.  Sure, I had a six-year-old boy, once, but Will was always calm in a surreal The Omen kind of way.  Whatever evil he enacted was quiet, and hidden, and undoubtedly led to some sort of sacrificial burning of marshmallows. 

Then, too, there’s my stupid theory about life and control:  namely, that people need to feel that they have the ability to shape their world.  For some, this means repainting their living room every six months.  For others, it means multiple piercings, many of which are in places that make sadists say “Ouch.”   Still others write and paint and sculpt and choreograph dances. 

Assuming this theory is true, what if Lucy has on some subliminal level decided that her “art”, her reshaping of the universe, is to sour the chemistry of every room she ever enters?  I can’t remember who or when I heard this, but at some point in my life someone or some episode of Quincy, ME told me that there are kids who figure out that bad attention is better than no attention, and consequently spend the rest of their lives making sure they get as much bad attention as they can. 

And then there’s that part of me that—again—wonders if all of the shouts and tears and and huffs and puffs are just the fatigue of being six in a foreign country.  Lucy is away from her friends, away from her room, away from 2,376 of her 2,381 stuff animals.  She had no say in this particular move, was given no voice in the wheres, whens, and hows.  We couldn’t have given her less control if we’d duct-taped her to the wing of the 767 we flew over on.  In a situation like that, who wouldn’t want to assert themselves—their “self,” their presence in and ability to change the universe—every chance they got? 


As I write this, part of me is aware that this is familiar territory in my writing this year:  I’ve worried about Lucy almost since the first month, all the more so since I assumed coming over that she was the last of my kids about whom I’d have to worry.  There was the school stuff, the scratching, cutting, OCD stuff.  And now there’s the hyperfit stuff.  It all gets a little bit old.  She’s just a kid, after all, her brain only 1/1,000th developed, even if her personality is in the 99th percentile. 

In the end, maybe, it’s worth noting that I’m less worried than—well . . . just annoyed.  No one wants to have their Saturday mornings ruined.  Every week.  By loud screaming.  And “Huh”ing against the couch.  And poking her brother with a stick as she slams a cupboard door in his face.  And constant trips to the hospital to tend to those broken legs. 

And I should mention that, in the midst of all of this, Lucy never really loses her sense of humor.  Last Saturday, for instance, after the third or fourth episode before 10 a.m., I sent her to her room and told her to stay there until I got back from my swim (an hour, more or less).  When I returned, I discovered a poster on her door, two sheets of 8 ½ x 11 paper taped together end to end.  There’s a story in our family, about a time six years ago when Will got very angry at me, and drew two stick figures—one large, one small—with an X between the two.  I loved that he did that, loved that he was smart enough to know that he needed to do something with his anger. 

Standing outside Will and Lucy’s room, I saw those two sheets of paper with writing and pictures scrawled all over them, and grinned.  On the top sheet, written in red ink, were the words:  “DANGER DO NOT ENTER.”  A large X was scrawled through the lower page, with images in each of the triangles of space created by the lines.  The top triangle showed a hand, held up to stop a person in their tracks.  The space on the right showed a fat exclamation point.  The bottom area had an upside-down stick figure with x’s where the eyes should be.  And the left-hand triangle . . .

Well, the left-hand triangle showed two round globes connected at the middle.  A stick leg and foot came off of the bottom of each of the globes.  And an arm and hand extended from the side of each globe.  No head was visible, as though the pair of buttocks portrayed belonged to a person who was, well, bent over double. 

And right in the middle of the butt, drawn in bright red ink? 

A handprint. 

Got to love that girl.


But now the second story, the last you’ll get of Lucy in Hong Kong: 

It’s Thursday night.  Ellen and Lucy have been down to the pool, and as they’re coming back, Lucy reaches up and grabs a berry from one of the odd-palmy-looking trees we have right beside the stairs of our building.  I’m not sure why she does this, or what she’s thinking, because I’m not there with her.  What I am sure about is that I can her screams from two stories up, half-way down the hall, in our flat, with the air conditioning running.

Apparently she popped the berry.  And apparently the berry contains some sort of juice or resin that stings and itches, instant poison-ivy in a can, with added heat. 

Into the flat the two of them tumble, Lucy roaring:  “Ooowwwww!!!  It hurts!!!!!  It hurts!!!!!  Owwwww!!!!!!!!”

The resin has gotten all over both of her arms, her legs, and parts of her neck.  Nothing we say, nothing we do, helps.  Hell, nothing we say or do can get her to shut up, to calm down, to come down from whatever mountain or acid trip or hallucination of damnation she’s on.  She’s screaming, and ranting, and kicking her arms and legs and crying and screaming and pulling at her skin.  Ellen tries to wash her down with a cold washcloth, but it doesn’t seem to help.  So Ellen turns on the tub, and begins filling it with water. 

“Owww!!”  Lucy screams.  “It huuuuuuuurrrrrrrrtttttts!!!  Owwww!!!  Owwww!!!!!!”  It’s a horrible, bellowing, bullying howl she’s got going, and Ellen and I aren’t sure whether to hug her or get out the duct tape just to get her to shut up. 

The water doesn’t help, or the soap that Ellen employs.  Eventually, some emergency in the living room forces Ellen to head there, leaving me alone with Lucy in a tile bathroom that works to turning piercing whines into sonic screams that threaten to pop my eardrums.  I stick several dozen rolls of toilet paper in my ears, and kneel by the edge of the tub. 

“It still hurts?” I ask.


“Are you sure?”


I reach into the tub, searching for the washcloth.  The water is freezing cold. 


“Ellen?” I holler down the hall.


“Ellen?” I holler louder


“Screw it,” I say, and go back to the tub.  I reach in.  Pull out the plug.  The water starts to drain.


“Breathe,” I say.


“Breathe,” I say again.

She stops.  Looks at me. 

“You need to breathe,” I say.  “With your lungs.  Remember?”

She nods, inhales, and then goes, “OOOOOOOWWWWWW—”

I put the plug back in, turn on the hot water. 


As the water rises, the screaming increases in volume.  The hot water makes it worse, she says, the itching is becoming itchier, the burning is becoming burnier. 

“This will help,” I say. 

“No it won’t!”

“Yes it will.  The hot water will cut through the resin.”

She stops.  “The huh?”

“The resin.  Those seeds or whatever you popped were filled with oils that irritate your skin.  Once we get rid of the oil, you won’t hurt anymore.”

She looks at her leg.  “I don’t see any oil.”

“It’s invisible.”

She looks more closely, unconvinced.  “Really?”

“You need hot water to cut through the oil.  It dissolves it, and then we can scrub it off with soap, and you won’t hurt anymore.”

“Why does it dissolve it?”

I’m not a chemist, but I had a crush on one in college, so I give it a shot:  “Hot water inhibits the ability of oil particles to bond.  And when the particles are split up, it’s easier to scrub them away with detergents.  Plus,” I add, just to make sure she doesn’t end up one of those serious scientificky girls who breaks the art of boy English majors, “everyone knows oil fairies hate hot water fairies, and will run away if they see more than one, especially if they’re eating ice-cream.”

She gives me a look, then says, “How do you know?”

“I used to get poison ivy all the time.  Hot water and soap was the only thing that helped.”

“Mommy used cold water.”

“Mommy didn’t use to get poison ivy all the time.”

She watches as I scrub one leg, then the other.


She nods.  She holds out her arms.  I scrub them, too.  Then she pulls her blonde mane to one side and leans her head away from me, stretching her neck like a swan.  This is a motion I’ve seen Lucy make a thousand times before:  at the pool in Lexington with her friends, sitting on her grandma’s lap listening to a story, stepping out of the tub and drying herself off in a thick towel.  It’s an indescribably beautiful gesture:  her hair is mouse brown at the base, but honey highlighted everywhere else. Her neck is narrow and graceful, the line of her jaw cutting at just the right angle.  

Yes, it’s been a year—a hell of a year, both good and bad—full of storms and tantrums and screaming fits and thrown toys.  

But this is the Lucy I know.  

1 comment:

michaelg said...

Raising strong, opinionated, thoughtful, feeling children is a gift to all of us. Well done, sir.
(Are you serious about Kung Fu Hustle? Never seen it.)