Monday, February 9, 2015

WTH? Athens: The Rules of the Mall

Lawlessness at the Georgia Square Mall.
Published August, 2012 in the Flagpole Magazine
I first discovered the rules of the mall when I was loitering (rule 8) in an alcove next to the Chinese massage kiosk, waiting for a group of boisterous teens (rule 3) to pass. The rules are displayed there on an official-looking blue sign, and are written in language you've come to expect from a bureaucratized society. The usual suspects are there: no gangs, no guns, no violence, no drugs. But what caught my attention and motivated me to write this column was the final rule. Rule number 24: no fishing, swimming or boating without prior written approval of shopping center management.
Really? Seriously? I guess I understand why we shouldn't shoot people or show our underwear at the mall, but fishing? Boating? This just seems beyond the pale, particularly since there are no lakes, ponds or fountains at the Georgia Square Mall. I realized I needed to go down there and ask some tough questions, so I changed out of my sexually explicit t-shirt (rule 12), strapped the baby in her car seat and was on my way. Read more >

Friday, February 6, 2015

I tried to make a new mom friend. Here is what happened.

When you're a mom, it seems like you'd have a lot in common with other moms. You're both exhausted. You both can change a diaper while eating a hamburger while making a doctor's appointment while driving a car. She has spit-up on her shoulder? Yeah, well you have Goldfish in your hair.

But it's surprisingly hard to make mom friends. Go to any park or playground, and you'll see lots of Lone Moms dotting the landscape, swiping at their smartphones while their children play. I don't know why this is, but it's always kind of bothered me.

Raising children can be a terribly isolating endeavor. You are busy, but also bored, since most of the tasks required of you are mundane, repetitive ones like loading the dishwasher, cooking food, and extinguishing the dog. You are surrounded by people all day, but these people are mostly pre-verbal, so you end up feeling lonely a lot of the time. I would think that moms would flock to each other like toddlers flock to the one thing in the house their parents forgot to baby-proof. But no. It turns out that most moms don't mix.

When I lived in Athens, GA, it wasn't so hard. I'd figured it out. I'd spy a mom fiddling with her Maya baby wrap next to the sensory play area, sidle up to her, and hit her with my opening conversational gambit: "What's your position on ancient grains?" And thus would begin a heartfelt conversation about Quinoa and Amaranth and what cereals they prefer. But I didn't really care what we were talking about. I just cared that we were talking.

So I was anxious when I moved out of Athens to the tiny town of High Shoals. It's just over the border from Oconee County, and most moms in Oconee County don't talk about ancient grains. They talk about things I don't have any experience with and thus can't comment on, like who is their favorite area aesthetician. (The last time I had anything resembling a facial was when I fell asleep in the middle of feeding the dogs and woke up with one of them licking my face). Oconee moms talk about where they're spending their family's spring break ("not Destin"), and how Grayson was just robbed at the regional gymnastics finals. Oconee County is very affluent, and very conservative. You still can't get a beer there on Sundays, but at least the Zaxby's drive-through stays open til 10 pm.

Nonetheless, I resolved to try to make new mom friends. I practiced smiling in the mirror and repeating "What's your home church?" (my new conversation starter) until there was only a hint of crazy-eye brought on by sleep deprivation. I worked on not making sweeping generalizations about people based on what county they live in. I reminded myself to brush my teeth and my hair every morning, instead of on alternating days like I usually do. Finally, shortly after Christmas, I was ready to go.

Now, at the same time all of this introspection about friend-making was going on, my oldest girl asked me for a puppy. I told her no and she went away. Then two days later she came back with a compromise: "How about a rat?"
This is the Suburbia character who had a pet rat.
This is also Flea, the bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Probably most folks consider "provide a rat-free environment for your children to live in" to be up there with other parenting dictates like "don't feed your baby Jagermeister." These are rules that are so obvious that they don't even bear mentioning. But when Sadie asked for a rat, I thought back to what happened when my teenaged self and friends watched the punk-rock adolescent classic "Suburbia." Inspired by a character who had a tame rat as a pet, several of my friends rushed out and secured rats for themselves. They would carry them around in the pockets of their leather jackets when they went to the mall to ask an adult to buy clove cigarettes for them. These rats, I remembered, were well-mannered, good-natured varmints.

A quick look on the web confirmed my memories. Rats, the internet assured me, are smart, and social. They are friendly, and loyal, and can be trained to learn their names and do tricks. If you aren't squicked out by the naked, scaly tail, the bulging genitalia, the beady eyes and twitching whiskers, and the general association of rats with things like plague and death, a rat might be just the thing for you.

My husband was not enthusiastic about this plan, mainly because one of his morning rituals is going out to check the trap in our chicken coop to see what predator was snared overnight. Sometimes he'll come in in the morning with a possum in the trap, or even a black snake. But usually, it's a rat. "Robin," he said, trying to sound reasonable, "Please don't go out and voluntarily purchase more vermin. We have plenty of rats right here." He pointed at the hissing, red-eyed rodent trying to gnaw its way out of the cage he'd just carried in from the coop.

"Yeah, but those rats are different," I said, hoping he wouldn't ask me why.

"Why?" he said. "It's exactly the same thing. It's a rat."

"Well..." I said, trying to stall. "Not really. See, this is an outdoor rat. We're getting an indoor one. Plus, these rats are free. The rat I'm going to get costs $18."

    My husband loves me, and he loves Sadie. But mainly, he's tired. And so eventually Sadie got her rat. Honey lived happily in Sadie's room in his 3-tiered Rat Palace, and every day I would take time out from soothing the infant and wrestling with the 3-year-old to play with the rat, something the pet store warned I had to do if I wanted to socialize him.

"Time to coddle the rat," I'd announce to the children, disappearing up the stairs to Sadie's room. I'd take Honey out of his cage and scratch his neck and ears. I'd hold him in my palm and encourage him to climb up my arm to my shoulder. I'd turn on Sadie's radio and the two of us would listen to Katy Perry together. Eventually, as Honey grew, I started taking him downstairs on brief field trips. I'd put him in the sleeve of my sweater, down by my wrist. If I kept my arm bent he would rest there contentedly, and eventually I would become embroiled in making baby food or putting away toys and would completely forget that I had a rather large rat in my sleeve.

One afternoon in January, Sadie suggested that we visit a park in Oconee County. We got ourselves ready and, as we were heading out the door, Sadie stopped and said, "Hey, why don't we bring Honey?" I agreed and so Sadie cleaned out one of her purses and stuffed Honey inside. When we got to the park, I decided it would not be safe for Sadie to run around on the playground with a bag full of rat (I do have some standards), so I offered to put Honey in my sleeve. She handed over the rat, which settled in the sleeve of my v-neck sweater, and ran off to play.

At first, we were alone on the playground. But after a while a mini-van pulled into the parking lot and a mom and her daughter climbed out. The daughter was the same age as Sadie, and they began enthusiastically playing together as soon as the girl hit the playground. I stood on the other side of the jungle gym from the other mom, wishing I had some of my daughter's friend-making mojo.

Then I remembered my resolution. "This could be it," I realized, watching the other mom through the slats in the climbing structure. "This could be my new mom friend." I remembered that if I wanted to enlarge my social circle and meet people in this new town, I'd have to invest some energy and take some risks. I remembered what I had told myself about being friendly and open and willing to meet someone where they are. I remembered all of those things. Sadly, I forgot that I had a rat in my sleeve.

I circled around the jungle gym closer to the other mom, trying to make it look like I was moving just to get a better view of my kid. When I was close enough to her to not have to yell, I gave her a big, friendly smile, and said "Our kids seem to enjoy playing together."

"They sure do!" said the other mom, brightly. She smiled, too, and the conversation with my first Oconee County mom was launched.

"How old is she? Oh, mine too! What school does she go to? Does she like it? Yes, we do live close by. We just moved. You grew up here? Seems like a nice place."

Outside, I was engaging in normal-sounding small talk. But inside, I was rejoicing. "I'm doing it!" I thought. "I'm having a normal conversation with another adult! I'm not crying, or babbling, or forgetting where in the sentence I am! I'm just a few more comments away from suggesting our kids meet up at the library some time, and when I do that, she'll say sure, and she'll have to come to the library, too, since her kid is only six and can't drive, and then we'll see each other again and then Bam! Mom friends! Yahoo!"

I decided to close the deal. I said, as casually as possible, "It's great that our kids are having so much fun together. Do you guys ever do any of the afternoon art things at the library?"

The other mom smiled and said, "Yes, We do go there sometimes."

"Great!" I said.

But things were not great. Something had happened in between my question about the library and her response. I didn't know what it was, exactly, but I could sense it. The other mom was still smiling, still making eye-contact with me. But something had changed. I replayed the conversation in my head. The slight pause in her answer to my question about the library. "Yes," Her eyes had flicked away from my face and down to my chest for a split second -- just a momentary glance -- before meeting mine again. I'd seen her do it but had thought nothing of it, because she'd looked back at me and finished answering. And she was still looking at me, her face absolutely calm and straight and normal. Nothing bad was happening. She was still standing there, probably waiting for me to suggest a meeting. So what was the problem?

As surreptitiously as possible (which was not at all, since she was standing 2 feet away from me, watching my face) I dropped my own eyes down to my chest. And then I understood. Honey, the rat who was so at home in my sweater sleeve that I often forgot he was there, had crawled up my sleeve and around to the front, and was now poking his head out of the point in the "v" of my v-neck sweater.

Looking at it from my perspective, I'm just a mom who is trying to make a new friend and who also happens to have a rat crawling around in her sweater. What's the big deal? But from her perspective? I can hear her standing in her kitchen, staring into a big glass of red wine and telling it to her husband. "A woman tried to talk to me at the park today, but there was a rat in her sweater, so..."

I looked up from the trembling pink nose and sharp eyes of the rodent poking out of my cleavage and into the face of the woman I was never, ever going to be friends with. I had absolutely no idea what etiquette was called for in this situation. Should I acknowledge what was happening with a breezy "oh, ha, don't worry, he's tame"?

Or should I feign surprise, and act as shocked as she?  "Oh my gosh," I could shriek, batting at my sweater, "How did that get in there?" Was it worse to be the kind of person who puts vermin in her sweater on purpose? Or the kind who gets fully dressed without realizing there's a rat loose in her clothing? I couldn't decide.

Because this is the South -- the place where one's darkest character failings are met with a sweet "bless your heart!" -- the other mom didn't do what some other moms might have done (e.g., pepper spray me while calling Child Protective Services). Instead, she decided to do the polite thing, and pretend that our casual conversation hadn't just been interrupted by the appearance of a clothing rodent. She stood there, her serene expression belying the tsunami of WTF? probably roiling in her head, and exchanged a few more banal pleasantries with me. Taking my cue from her, I also tried to ignore the rat, who had crawled down to the waist of my sweater and now nestled there like a distended appendix.

"Well," I said finally, "I guess we'd better get on home." All the other things I wanted to say -- "Maybe we'll see each other again!" "It was great talking to you!" -- felt like chalk in my mouth as I walked with my daughter to the mini-van.

"That girl was really nice!" said Sadie, climbing in her booster seat. "Maybe we could meet her here again."

"Maybe so," I said, reaching under my sweater and extracting Honey. He thrashed and twisted as I inserted him into the purse Sadie had brought along.

"We could play with Honey, maybe," Sadie said as I started the van. "Do you think she likes rats too?"

 "I don't know, Bean," I sighed. Should I tell her that, no, she probably doesn't like rats very much at all. Should I tell her that if she wants to be accepted in her new town, she needs to lose the rat and turn her face to more normal little-girl pursuits, like weaving bracelets out those damn rubber band circles? Should I tell her that the weird things she loves are the very same things that will make her lonely? The way her mom sometimes is?

"I don't know," I said again. "But I'll tell you what. If you find a person who likes both you and your rat, you snag 'em, OK? That's when you know you've found a friend." I pulled the car out of the lot and drove myself, my daughter, and our pet rat back home.