Dog Days in Frogtown

My ex-husband and I are not a pair known for our superior communication skills. Hence, the responsibility of finding someone to watch the kids for the month of August got lost. We We both non-comittally agreed to do something about it, and we both sort-of tried, but when the first of the month rolled around, we were still pretty much screwed. We hired a babysitter, but it became quickly apparent she wasn’t cut out for the job.

I called Dave and had a very stupid conversation in which nothing was resolved that left me angrily huffing on a cig and bitching to a neighbor. Robyn, a mother from down the hall, tells me about a program at the rec center across the street that offers free afternoon programs. Summer Dog Days Shangri La. OK, the next day is Friday I am taking the kids.

We show up and walk into the cool of the Scheffer Rec Center. It is your typical cinder-block box,   coated in institutional paint, a mural along the back side of kids playing sports. Inside, younger kids huddle around a foosball table and older ones linger in clumps, messing around. I find a woman in a baseball hat who looks like she knows what’s up.

“Hi, my neighbor told me you have afternoon programs? For kids?” I am embarrassed by how little I know about what is going on right across the street form my home.

“Yeah, that would be Summer Splash.” She says to me and then, “ANDRE! Put that chair DOWN!!” Andre freezes with chair held aloft, wide eyed, then slowly puts the chair down. I like this woman. She continues, “But that’s Monday through Thursday. Today is Friday and we’re taking the Circulator bus to a water park.” Ivan, standing next to me whispers, “YES!” and pumps his arm.

“Oh, well, can they go? When do you leave? I can get suits and towels, I just live across the street.” She nods and starts grabbing registration forms, permission slips, and hands me a pen, “We leave in about a half hour.” I take the forms into the next room and start filling them out on a ping-pong table. Veronica crowds in and says quietly,

“I don’t want to go mom.” I look up from writing, surprised. It is a water park after all, “Why hon? What’s up” She hesitates for just a moment, looking around the bustling room,

“Um. We’re the only white people here.” She is not lying. We are absolutely the only white people there. I crouch down to meet her eyes,

“You know, this is true. But that’s no reason to miss out on something fun.” Just then a tall, brown girl comes over to the table, points at Ivan and asks me if he has a life jacket.

“No, but he’s a good swimmer, he doesn’t need one.” She has giant, kind, almond-shaped eyes. I ask what her name is.

“Shaughnessy.”

“Well Shaughnessy, this is Veronica, and this is Ivan. Veronica is feeling a little shy about going along today. Do you think she should go?”

She smiles widely, “YEAH! It’s awesome!” Oh thank you nice girl! I look at Veronica pointedly. See?

I finish filling out the forms and we hurry home to pack towels and swimsuits. Veronica continues to voice her concern, “I feel happy and excited and upset at the same time,” she says as we hurry to our door.

“That’s called anxiety.” I tell her, “It’s normal when you try something new and you don’t know anyone.” As we’re cramming towels into backpacks I say, “You know, the town I grew up in almost everyone was white, but the few black kids didn’t let it stop them from doing cool stuff.” This is a half-truth, I realize as I say it. I have absolutely no idea how the one black boy at my grade school felt, but he kept mostly to himself and his few friends. But this is the truth I want for her, so I leave it at that. Ivan jumps on the bandwagon too. Gesturing with his hands like a lawyer he says,

“You have to try new things Veronica. Otherwise you’ll never know if you’re going to like them.” He is lobbying hard for the waterpark.

“But mom,” Veronica pleads as we head back to the center, “What if they forget us, and the bus leaves without us?” I can’t help but smile. “Oh honey. They won’t forget you.”

I shuffle them into the room where everyone is waiting. As I look around, I know, it is more than skin color that divides my kids from the rest of the crowd. Most of the kids are older, middle-school aged. The rest of the kids have been coming to this rec center all summer, they know each other’s names and are friends. And I am self-aware enough to know we are whiter than even most white people. Well screw it. We live here, this is our neighborhood, and my kids are just kids. I seek out the guy in charge, wearing a powder blue staff t-shirt and holding a clipboard. I make sure he knows their names. Veronica hangs back against the wall at the back of the line and Ivan bounces on toes. They look impossibly small, and pale, but I know they are going to be fine.

Our little slice of Frogtown, Census tract 327, has the following make-up: Black: 40%, Asian: 34% White: 19%, Hispanic: 4%, Other: 4%. By comparison, the neighborhood we moved from in St Cloud was about 86% White, and the area I grew up in, Hartford, Wisconsin, is about 95% White. Needless to say, it is, by far, the most diverse place I have ever lived. And I do, without reservation, love that.

I love watching the tiny elderly Hmong couples with sun umbrellas walking to work in the marketplace. I love that the Hmong Marketplace is so far out, I can’t even figure out what to buy there. I love watching the shirtless men of varying shades play pick-up basketball at the playground across the street, and not in an entirely innocent way. I love the chaos of the local Holiday station and the crush of humanity that flows in a constant, CONSTANT, stream through it. I love that as I bike through my neighborhood, people turn their heads to see me biking through, because well, I suppose: “there goes that fat white lady on the bike again!” I also like that living in Frogtown challenges my assumptions –about my self, about other people. Like many progressive white folks, I don’t think I am racist. I try hard not to be. But that is easy to say when you live around a bunch of other people that look exactly like yourself. Now when I catch myself factoring people’s race in as I see them, meet them, it’s like getting my clothes snagged on a nail. I have to stop and unravel my thoughts, reconsider. Maybe I am old to be learning this, but I am at least learning.

And though I am free to embrace the diversity, deconstruct it and measure it against my own experience, I have wondered what my kids make of it. I’ll never know what it is like to be on a bus, playground, or a field trip where I am the only white kid. Which is why I was so glad Veronica had the insight to name her feeling, that she felt comfortable enough with me to say it plainly and openly.

When I went to pick them up four hours later, Ivan was playing foosball with some boys, and Veronica was bossing around some younger kids by the vending machine. When they saw me they ran up and hugged me. “How was it?” I asked.

“It was awesome! Can we go back every day next week?” And we did.

Music for Root Canals

The pain on the right side of my mouth began, with a dull ache, on the ride from Door County back to my mother’s house in Central Wisconsin. By the time I left her house  for home 36 hours later, I was dosing myself with ibuprofen and acetaminophen in two hour rotations. The pain peaked while I was hauling ass down highway 29, heading towards St Paul with the kids in the backseat. I’ll spare you the gory details except to say that I passed through what I believe to be a Gate of Hell, screaming and clutching my cheek on the side of the road while my kids stared in silent disbelief through the back windows.  Ivan was a ten pound baby I delivered without drugs; this was worse. After I may or may not have ripped the root out my tooth, the pain decreased to a manageable throb. We drove on.

It’s not that I don’t want to go to the dentist, it’s just that I am afraid to go. Not so much because of the pain, but because I fear the truth. I can’t handle the truth about my mouth. Or the resulting invoice. I considered many extreme and insane options involving the procurement of street drugs and power tools before I called the dentist. But finally I did.

I told the nurse my story – I did not spare her the details. “I think you should come in right away.” she said, “Today.”

“Yeah, thing is, I can’t really pay for any major work today, I need to wait to get paid next week.”

“Oh, yeah, you would need to pay for it. Let’s get you in soon then.” So we schedule an appointment and I take up a variety of home remedies and hippie medicine. I take garlic and astragalus pills for immunity, and swish with water and peroxide or tea tree oil to fight infection. I take a lot of Aleve. In my spare time, I read horror stories about tooth decay on the internet and drink Jameson for the pain. Everyone I tell about my ordeal has a story to share; exploding abscesses, broken teeth at sea, emergency extractions paid for with cash after hours. It crosses cultural and socioeconomic bounds, and seems to depend on one thing: the person’s ability to withstand pain while remaining in complete denial. Here I excel.

Tuesday morning I get a high-tech x-ray in a room that looks like a Stanley Kubrik set. “This will give us a good picture of your whole jaw, so we can see if you will die of cancer in three months,” the dental tech said – more or less. After I spent two intense minutes accepting my imminent, tragic demise, the dentist assured me I had “many sound teeth”, which came as a total shock since I was mentally prepared for a full set of dentures.

OK, so it isn’t so bad. I need two root canals. It shows how warped my sense of “not so bad” is that I feel this. I call a friend and tell him the ‘good news’, and he says “Whatever you do, don’t listen to Rush. I listened to Hemispheres when I had mine done in the eighties and it was absolute hell.” Duly noted. It reminded me of my first psychedelic experience.

I was nine and needed several cavities filled. It was a new novelty to offer a cassette Walkman to listen to while you had work done. The Hygienist flipped through some cassettes mumbling “Not much here for kids…” and held up Urban Chipmunk. “How about this?” I had Chipmunk Punk at home, so I figured “Why not?”. Then they put on the Green Nose with it’s cool, nitrous hiss. So, you know, I’m high on nitrous, listening to The Devil Went Down To Georgia as sung by Alvin and the Chipmunks. I was only nine but I knew that shit was fucked UP.

Tuesday evening, I settle into the chair for my Pulpectomy – I swear they call it that – armed with headphones. By the time they have six instruments crammed into my mouth, I’m listening to Cat Stevens’, “On the Road to Find Out” and I feel like I am in a Wes Anderson movie.

The scene opens on an empty instrument tray shown from above. A blue gloved hand slowly loads up the tray with instruments one-by-one while Cat is picking the through the intro. The next shot is close up of my face from above, mouth pried open wide and eyes darting in terror while my Dentist (played by Bill Murray) and the Dental Tech (played by anyone but Gwyneth Paltrow) jam instruments into my mouth. The subplot is that the Bill Murray character is my real father, only I don’t know it… yet. The dental scene alternates scenes of my lover (Owen Wilson, duh) pawning his priceless collection of antique thimbles to pay for my root canals. That is how strong our love is. Feel it.

Next comes “Love in Vain” by the Rolling Stones, which is a lovely enough song to enjoy anytime, even while a woman who is not Gwenyth Paltrow wrenches a metal band around your tooth. After that comes “End of The Line” by Roxy Music, with it’s crooning Bryan Ferry and swelling guitars. A bit much, but not worth hitting skip. “Sheena is A Punk Rocker”? Not in the dentist’s chair she’s not. Then “Rory Rides Me Raw” by the Vaselines comes on, and I feel sexually uncomfortable listening to it while two other people are leaning over me. Vampire Weekend? That’s like Rush circa 20o8: no. Finally, just as “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” (HA!) begins, they start removing the hardware from my cheeks. I tongue my fat Novacaine lips and head to reception.

I stop to schedule the first of the two root canals on my way out. “How long does the procedure take?” I ask. “About eighty minutes.” Duly noted. My appointment is two weeks away, but I have already composed my playlist. I can’t take any chances.