We used to be cool

We used to be so cool. No, really, it’s true.

Every once in a while, my husband Gary or I will run into somebody cool, somebody in their twenties and heading off to do something fabulous. I might be in a cafe and see a student holding a frisbee. “Hey, do you play Ultimate?” I ask. Perking up at the affirmative response, and wiping a smear of lunch from the front of my t-shirt, I say brightly, “Oh, I used to play Ultimate!” The kid looks doubtful. I feel desperate to convince him. The whole encounter ends for me with a feeling of disappointment. Or maybe Gary meets a young person somewhere who’s heading off to PhD School, about to embark on an exciting research project in one of the few remaining remote bits of the planet. Gary has to bite his tongue to stifle his painful desire to insist that he, too, has been where no man has gone before, to uncharted territories where he would make new discoveries, swing from vines, and get malaria. Been there, done that. No, really!

But truly, we used to be cool. It’s just, somehow, with each successive child, it’s less apparent. Some examples:

First, travel. We used to get around the world, and around town, in cool ways. As graduate students, Gary and I would board international flights to Asia with our scuffed-up backpacks and canvas sacks stuffed with rat traps and rain gauges. Or, for a trip across town when we lived in Bogor (Indonesia), we’d hop on our periwinkle-blue 1973 Vespa. The scooter was sure to break down at least once, maybe several times on each outing, and even that was cool. Young Indonesian guys would materialize out of the diesel smog on their own cobbled-together Vespas, whip out their greasy tool sacks, attach a few rubber bands here and there, and have us up and running again in a minute. Never failed to happen.

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But these days, since Tristan became ambulatory, the farthest we’ve traveled as a family is the five hours to San Francisco, and our mode of transportation was distinctly NOT cool. To our frustration, no enterprising engineer has created plexiglass dividers to separate children from one another in the backseat. Packed like sardines in the back of our Subaru, Tomas wedged between Tristan’s carseat and Phoebe’s booster, they fight like rabid pitbulls. One of us would have been dead before we reached the Golden Gate Bridge. So, we rented a minivan. The horror. And the coolness indicator just plummeted.

Second, sports. We were cool athletes. We played Ultimate competitively in grad school, and later around the world — Jakarta, Bali, Bangkok, Singapore, Perth. Before all that, Gary was a bike messenger in D.C. That is seriously cool.

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These days, my exercise consists of chasing Tristan around at the kiddie gym. I sprint from one potential disaster to the next, swooping in to catch my son as he nearly Tarzans on a rope swing into a sweet little thing with tiny pigtails and a purple sparkly unicorn shirt, diving to stop Tristan from wrenching his preferred hula hoop from the hands of a small boy whose meaty father is closing in, and so on. Likewise, my husband is not currently a cool athlete. A couple of times a week he hobbles to the local gym to tread the ellipse for twenty-one minutes on his one good knee. Ah, to remember him diving for the disc.

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And then, there’s food and fine-dining. When Tomas was little and we were still more or less cool, Uncle Chris (my brother) was a high flyin’ dotcommer, or at least still living the good life after it all. He used to take us out to the hippest restaurants in San Francisco. That ended when Tomas, still in diapers, crouched under our table during the entrees for a poop. Chris was appalled. “Can’t you stop him?” he whispered urgently. Uh, yeah, if you want everyone else to know your nephew is pooping under the table at the coolest joint in town. Things along those lines had happened before: once our flight into San Francisco began its landing just as Tomas was mid-squat at our feet. Forced back into his seat, Tomas repeatedly yowled, “But I needda poooooooop!” Of course, just as on all US airlines, that flight was entirely populated by people who, apparently, were never children themselves and who were, thus, not obliged to exercise the slightest bit of tolerance for one.

Anyway, that was the last time Uncle Chris took us out to a hip joint. When we visited him a few weeks ago, it was dim sum. No complaints. The food was fabulous and the Hong Kongese staff totally unperturbed when the kids in our party engaged in a wrestling match on the carpet. They simply seated all of the other customers at the other end of the restaurant. But, it was distinctly less cool than that other place.

Finally, there’s the day-to-day. As graduate students, Gary and I spent months at a time in the jungles of Borneo. We woke each morning to gibbon song. We camped for weeks on top of a remote island where the local men harvested swiftlet nests to be sold to the Chinese for birds nest soup. Then, on the same island, we camped for weeks on a beach where we fished for dinner and cooked with lemongrass that grew in the sand. I spent a Christmas surveying rats and bats with Dayak headhunters in the interior — my “Christmas with the cannibals,” I called it. The daily challenges were cool, and exciting: how to get 300 pounds of rat traps onto the back of a motorcycle; how to avoid fire ants; how to set my traps where they wouldn’t be wholly eaten by bearded pigs.

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And now, well, we’re parents with kids. The challenges are big ones, but not so glamorous, and my day-to-day is full of the usual mommy stuff, of which you will be spared. At least in this post.

But, you know, now we’re cool in a different way. Really! We’re…vicariously cool.

As a parent, you derive a lot of your coolness from your children. And our kids are way cool.

Tomas just performed on stage for the first time in a local repertory theater production of Fiddler on the Roof. It was entirely his decision to do this, and he’s a shy guy, and he did the whole thing with grace and maturity. The other night he hit his second home run of the season at his Little League game, and, at last night’s game, he pitched 78 awesome throws. He even split his pants sliding into a base. He rocks.

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Phoebe is an amazing princess fairy. She mixes fairy dust in the kitchen. (Shoot, there goes another $8 bottle of paprika). She leaves offerings for the fairies in a hollow oak tree behind our house. And last week she delivered a spontaneous, solo, acapella performance of Lavender’s Blue at her all-school morning meeting. The superintendent generously allowed her to sing all four verses, and Phoebe received a whooping round of applause from the students and staff (but for Tomas, who was shrinking, mortified, into his metal folding chair). The superintendent then steered the meeting back to planning the school camping trip.

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And Tristan…well, you’ve already had a few Tristan stories. His personality is still emerging, but, whatever it will be, it’s going to be HUGE, and it’s going to be way cool.

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So, this is where we are now. I think I’ve worked through this. I’m good with it. The next time I run into a cute young guy with a disc, or Gary meets a jungle-bound student at the gym while he’s gimping along on the treadmill, we’ll stay mum, assured in our own conviction that we have been there, among the coolest of the cool. Yes, that’s it: we are veterans of cool. It’s up to our kids now. Awesome.

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