Toy Retreat

(Guest Post from the the NBP–the Non-Binary Progeny)

I didn’t realize it as a child, but now I see that I was pretty angry about a lot of things in my young life. I didn’t look like my parents (other kids looked like their parents!), and besides that, I was trapped in a body that I really didn’t like—a body I came to hate, but more on that later. When confusion and anger overwhelmed me, I would go into a zombie-like meditative state and lose myself in my toys.

Several toys consumed me. Whether it was G.I. Joes or Transformers, I became transfixed. I also had an assortment of Lincoln Logs, Matchbox cars, plastic dinosaurs, and other animals for whom I created worlds for us to get lost in. Sometimes those worlds only consisted of marching the dinosaurs around and having them meet the cars and the tigers, but it was enough for me to forget about myself for a time. I loved my “boy” toys.

I hated dolls. I once had a doll my mom named Chamomile (I wouldn’t even deign to name her), given to me by a family friend. Chamomile was a Japanese doll with a porcelain face, straight jet-black hair, and a red kimono. Didn’t this couple—Japanese scholars both—know that Koreans and Japanese aren’t the same thing? Well, I didn’t at the time, so I thought I was supposed to look like this doll; I couldn’t have been more insulted! Okay, well, they couldn’t have known that this Asian (I barely knew I was Korean, only some brand of Asian) toddler despised dolls of any ethnic background. No dolls. Period. This doll was not allowed in my room. I wanted to put her six feet under because I wholly rejected any resemblance to her and flat out thought she was creepy with her piercing eyes and her perfectly puckered lips. [Shivers!] My mother consigned her to a closet, where I wouldn’t be able to see her, nor she me. Obviously, dolls were forever banned from my toy repertoire.

One Christmas—I was about five—my grandpa made me a dollhouse. Built it himself—an old man building a dollhouse. Awww, sweet. I destroyed it. Like a little ungrateful brute, I kicked it in because it screamed to me, “YOU ARE A GIRL.” I feel guilty about demolishing it, and I know my parents were upset that I had done so since it was such a nice thing my grandpa did (and, apparently, he wasn’t always the cuddliest fellow in the world), but I couldn’t stand it. In hindsight, I could’ve at least tried to use the dollhouse as a G.I. Joe headquarters.

The only other “girly” toys I remember owning were My Little Ponies. They were stupid and pink and purple and “girl” colored but ultimately accepted into the mix because they were useful as beasts of burden. All my action figures were allowed to use them as mules and horses for carry and cargo. Mwahaha.

I was a huge fan of Legos and spent hours building Lego cities, both modern and medieval. These were extravagant constructions with multiple dwellings, roads, vehicles, people. Sometimes these architectural masterpieces remained assembled for quite some time…months at least. After a while I would notice that the yellow, blue, and red blocks started looking more and more like the gray ones. Excitedly, I would go majorly OCD. Paintbrushes of all sizes would be assembled and used to dust every nook and cranny. Fan brushes were especially effective, in case you were wondering! Dusting became another therapeutic zombie activity. It required few brainwaves and at the end, when I snapped out of my dusty reverie, I would feel a sense of accomplishment. All my knights, castles, pilots, drivers, and civilians now lived in an allergen-free world! It took hours—blissful, non-thinking hours.

Talking about paintbrushes, art was another outlet for me. Not only was it easy to get lost in, but it was an activity relatively free of gender overtones. My zombie self was an abstract artist veering towards Modernism with lines, colors, patterns, and shapes plunked all over a page; we (my Zombie and I) used crayons, markers, watercolors, pastels, colored pencils, acrylics. These artistic adventures could last for hours in which I would achieve my “zombie-zone”—anger synapses asleep. Pages upon pages would pile up on my art table. Once I had a formidable stack, I would gather together as many pages as the stapler allowed, and add a cover with a clever title (e.g., “Lines and Shapes”) and my name. It amazed and impressed my parents when the zombie state came on because I’d be intent for such long periods of time that they thought it indicated a profound ability to focus on a task. They didn’t know—and neither did I—that it was really a way to unfocus and go to another, less complicated place.

Later on these drawings became distinctly warlike. Knights, axes, swords, battleships, and airplanes shooting fire, bullets, missiles, bombs, ahem all manner of projectiles, figured prominently. The knights or the soldiers were always either armed or had rippling arms themselves. These drawings required total concentration, and the time spent drawing them—images of death-inducing weapons though they might be—had a calming effect on me. Whatever the zombie and I did, it was done subconsciously to calm an inner rage, and it sort of worked.

Warrior wannabe (or disturbed child, ha. Ha. Ha?) though I may have been, I loved stuffed animals. They were cute and soft and uncomplicated (boys had them, too!). Stuffed animals were also good friends because if you felt the need to hit things or throw things against a wall, they could take it. They didn’t get upset or scream or cry. They just pleasantly smiled (hopefully without crying on the inside).

I always had one favorite, and he was never in harm’s way. The first favorite was a super soft leopard with wonderful spots named Larry. Larry had plastic whiskers great for chewing on. Then came Steven who was a tan mini-Gund bear. He loved to have his tummy rubbed and rubbed and rubbed.

Needless to say, all my animals were male, except for one pink Gund bear named Susan. Me, the blossoming little sexist, made her the bitch. Talking about sexism: Loving stuffed animals—being suckered in by cute things—seemed like a disturbingly girly thing to do. Dusting Legos also made me feel girly because neatness and cleanliness were attributes associated with girls. I tried not to think about this too much, because even if they were girly, they were necessities.

Then came William, William T. Bear (his middle name was “The” not “Teddy”). When I received William, a chocolate brown grizzly bear and held him for the first time, he felt so new and soft and was the ultimate in cuteness and comfort—100 percent ergonomic…for hugging. Oh, he even smelled good. I knew we’d have a special bond. He was a present from my father, which made him already special—even magical. I gave him a voice, and in turn, he gave me one. I manipulated and animated him like a puppet (but he’s not a puppet, damn it, he’s real!). I brought him to life by moving him: body, limbs, even ears. I gave him emotions and ascribed body movements to each feeling. I was never without William at home, and I dreaded leaving him behind when I went to school. He was a shield and a security blanket, and a rather excellent companion. William was also a useful communication conduit to my parents. My parents, not bears of small brain themselves, caught on quickly. They would ask me if William were tired, or if William were sad, and William, less guarded than I, would answer truthfully and unassumingly. I, who rarely spoke more than a word or two even at home, became quite vocal and lively when William was around. He was a bubbly bear and made even me laugh. William was who I wanted to be. He was funny and simple and innocent and silly and male. He was not evil, though naturally being a bear, he grrrred a lot. He made my anger disappear. He was the light side to my dark. (Shhh. Don’t tell, but he’s watching Top Chef next to me as I write this.)

Brace Myself

(Guest Post from the Spouse)

July was Disability Pride Month. It came as a surprise to me, even though I am one of those that some would call “disabled.” There are those who find “handicapped” offensive. I’m not certain why that is. I find the term “disabled” more offensive—well not offensive, just inaccurate because some of us who would appear to be disabled are not really. But I get ahead of myself.

My “disability” is because my right leg is ten inches shorter than my left. I wear a brace with a pogo-stick-like bottom to compensate for the difference in length. A shoe is attached to a footplate at the proper height for my right foot. Two steel uprights hold the footplate and are topped by a leather cuff that encircles my calf. The whole contraption weighs about eight pounds. It’s a little bit unwieldy, but it allows me to stand upright and walk like a normal person, albeit with a limp. Walking without it is possible (I used to do it a lot when I was a kid), but not as comfortable as it once was, and besides, I look funny bobbing up and down as I walk.

Because the brace is plain for all to see, little kids are curious about it. Mostly they stare, and their mothers whisper to them that it’s not polite to stare. The most inquisitive just come right out and ask, “What happened to your leg?” I prefer the direct approach of the kids. My routine answer is, “I was born with one leg shorter than the other.” And then I ask questions back. Depending on the age of the kid, “Which leg is shorter?” and/or “Are your legs the same length?” They look down at themselves, realize that they have two legs of the same length and, having their curiosity satisfied, they go on to more interesting topics like whether they have a dog.

In summer I have the advantage of having a vacation home in a community with a lovely Olympic-size swimming pool that I attend regularly. It is swarming with kids. Some of them ask me about my leg; others just stare. Most of the kids attend a summer camp nearby, so, even though I was unaware that July was Disability Pride Month, I thought I’d ask the camp director if she’d like me to talk to the kids about people with disabilities. Her eagerness in accepting my offer caught me somewhat by surprise, but her enthusiasm did not seem phony. So on one Friday morning in July, I went to the camp to talk to the kids. We had decided that I would talk to the older kids (8-12) for 30 minutes, and the younger ones (4-7) about 15 minutes.

I was nervous and didn’t know quite how to get started. In the first session (with the older kids), I started telling them what I told you: that I don’t much like the term “disabled” (because I didn’t really feel disabled). In response to the question that I knew they had (“What happened to your leg?”), I told them that I usually told younger kids that I was born with one leg shorter than the other, but that was a simplification. After a short anatomy lesson about legs (femur, tibia, fibula), I told them that I was born without a femur, and that being born immediately after the end of WWII, I was taken to Washington, D.C. where the Veterans’ Administration was building braces for wounded soldiers, and they built a brace for me, too. The floodgates having been opened, the questions and comments poured in. “My grandfather was born in 1946, too!” “Can you drive a car?” “I know she can ‘cuz I’ve seen her at the pool!” (An opportunity to tell them about FDR and his custom-built car.) “What do you do when you take a shower?” “How much does your brace weigh?” I took it off and passed it around. “Wow, it’s heavy!” “How do you fasten the shoe on?” “Can you change your shoes?” “Does it hurt?” “Won’t your leg ever grow longer?” “Is your foot ‘normal’?” (Display foot.) From one of the tween-age girls: “Have you had to have clothes specially made for you?” An unexpectedly mature question: “How has your family been affected by your disability?” “How do you walk without it?” (Demonstrate bobbing up-and-down walk.)

I told them that my left leg had become very strong in compensation for the weakness in my right leg, and they were amazed that I had been a high jumper in junior high school. There ensued a discussion of other types of compensation: blind people who had very acute hearing, for example.

Forty-five minutes passed in a second.

Then the younger kids came. They were similarly curious, courteous, and ever so slightly more rambunctious. After a bit I was talking about how people would stare at me and my Korean child (“My Dad is from Korea!”), and how we didn’t much like it.  I guess I included talk of my child again and maybe again. “Is your child a boy or a girl?” someone asked since I hadn’t said. I turned questioningly to the camp Director who nodded encouragingly. “My child does not identify as either a boy or a girl,” I said. “That is known as non-binary.” “I’m non-binary,” said a kid enthusiastically, “and I prefer the pronoun ‘they’.” New floodgates opened. One little boy in the back allowed as how he didn’t much like being a boy. The kids seemed to accept without question that this was something some kids felt. No big deal. Just like my “disability.”

Kids wave at me at the pool now. Sometimes they come up and ask, “How’s your leg today?” “About the same,” I say. “Great,” they respond.

Kids are cool.

Snippets

          How upset would you be if there were an outbreak of the coronavirus on the Senate floor?

          Do Rudy Giuliani and Alan Dershowitz share the same brain?

          The spouse asked the NBP what kind of vacations the NBP most enjoyed. Options were laid out: to beautiful natural spots; trips that covered many places; trips that went only to one location; and so on. The spouse finally included in her cataloging a trip designed to visit museums or other cultural sites. The NBP immediately labeled that last option a “nerdcation.” I don’t know if the NBP has already trademarked that designation.

          The reason I can’t speak a foreign language is that I grew up watching American television. A few years ago, I asked a Portuguese waiter how he had learned to speak his excellent English. He said that Portugal, not a rich country, did not dub English television shows into Portuguese but took the cheaper route of having Portuguese subtitles. He said that watching such programming had made his English better than just from school studies. “Yes,” he said, “I can speak English because of Friends.” In the last month I asked a man from the Netherlands about his flawless English and he said that he first learned the language from non-dubbed American cartoons on Dutch television. I only watched Bugs Bunny, Sky King, and Father Knows Best in English, and therefore I only speak a version of English.

          A Mayan guide in Yucatan said that the Spanish brought hammocks to Mexico, and before that Mayans slept on the ground. Mayans quickly adopted hammocks because sleeping on the ground, which had a heavy concentration of lime, caused health problems. The guide, as do other modern Mayans, still sleeps in a hammock. I did not know him well enough to ask about hammock sex.

          I have heard reports that 500,000 animals have been killed in the Australian fires. (Don’t ask how anyone could know the number or even give a reasonable estimate. And are fish, birds, beetles, and centipedes “animals” for this purpose?) Other reports put the dead animals at a half billion. On a first reaction, does one number seem more devastating than the other?

          When the pontificating ass gets to be too much, just say, “I bow to your superior sciolism.”

          “‘One can be cleverer than another, not cleverer than all others.’ (La Bruyère?)” Leonarda Sciascia, Equal Danger.

          Why is it important to learn how to fold fitted sheets, when you can just ball them up and shove them onto a closet shelf? Or do you, as my mommy used to, iron your sheets?

Back to the Future? Really?

My parents rained on parades. This was partly because although we had enough money to get by, we did not have more than that. The family would not have the latest model car, a second home, or exotic vacations.  There would be a used Oldsmobile (my father’s invariable choice) and a week on a nearby lake if some friend or boss made a cottage available. There would be adequate clothing, but no one would be a fashion plate. And who needs to go to restaurants? This was not a terrible hardship perhaps because things like smartphones and Air shoes and overly expensive dolls and other toys did not exist. On the other hand, I remain frugal today–perhaps excessively so–as a result of my upbringing.

The dampening, however, was not just about material expectations; it was about life in general. Some typical interchanges: “It’s a beautiful day today.” “Yes, but it’s supposed to rain tomorrow.” Or: “We won the ballgame!” “Yes, but you play the (powerhouse) next time.” And: “The Halloween party is going to be great.” “Well, it is probably going to be much like the one last year, and I am sure you remember that.”

The point, I guess, was to avoid disappointment. If you did not expect much, you would not be dashed, crushed, or frustrated by what happened. And if good things did happen, then you could feel good. But, of course, only for a brief time because disappointments were always just around the corner. By spritzing on expectations, my mom and dad no doubt thought they were being good parents by shielding us from disappointment.

My non-binary progeny, like many young children, often had great enthusiasm for some coming event. Often I knew that the occasion would not live up to the NBP’s excitement. My instinct was to act like my parents. I needed to protect that precious little one by referring to my experiences to show the NBP how it was unlikely to meet such high expectations. Then the prog (pronounced as if it were “proj”) would not be disappointed. In the beginning I may have done that, but then I realized that such a speech only deprived the NBP of pre-event excitement. If the event truly were a bust, then there was no enjoyment whatsoever. My NBP taught me what had been drilled out of me in childhood: enjoy the buildup to something. Get that enjoyment no matter what happens later.

This practice was put to a severe test at Orlando’s Universal Studios when the progeny spotted the Back to the Future ride. The prog had loved the movie and was eager to go on the attraction. But I knew some things about the NBP and one of them was that thrill rides were not just undesired, they were to be avoided at all costs. (Another reason to love that kid. If the NBP had liked roller coasters, I might have had to endure them also. But the last time I had been on such a thing, admittedly quite some time ago, I felt sick for hours afterwards.)  I have no idea what the prog thought this ride was going to be, but I knew it was going to be awful for both of us. As we endured the long line, the NBP’s excitement grew and grew, and I kept debating with myself whether to abandon ship, or in this case, abandon the DeLorean. The more time I internally waffled, the more excited the prog became.

We did it.  It was not a ride that plunges and twists. It was worse. It was one of those virtual reality things where you do not get sick from real motion, but through the trickery of projections. You know it is a trick, but still it makes you scream. You feel scared and stupid.

We came out, and it was clear the progeny had been terrified and was not a happy person. I am sure that it lasted but a few minutes, and the wait for the ride with the building excitement had been much longer—in other words, the period of enjoyment had been much longer than the period of disappointment (and terror)–but this time in not taking away the NBP’s expectations I was not sure that I had done right. I feared that the terror, even if brief, outweighed everything that had come before.

What should a good parent have done?

Recently the now grown-up child and I had dinner, and the Back to the Future ride came up.  Although it happened decades ago, the NGC remembers it vividly.  I asked if I had been a bad parent not to have announced a warning. The NBP shook the head no. But then again, the progeny was expecting me to pick up the restaurant bill. (If you meet the NBP, ask about the Disney ride, It’s a Small World, and you will be convinced that, at least some of the time, I was one terrific father.)

[And the world needs to invent new pronouns.]