Toddler Steps

August 8, 2006 at 12:55 pm (Uncategorized)

This weekend we were fortunate to have the opportunity to attend the annual powwow of the Chippewa-Cree Indians on the Rocky Boy reservation near Havre, Montana.

My husband specializes in Native American law, and Rob, one of Jay’s previous employers, grew up on the Rocky Boy reservation before going on to earning a law degree and an MBA and generally kicking ass and taking no prisoners. Rob invited us to join him and his family for the weekend’s events.

I was, of course, tired in the run-up to the trip. I’m always tired, but the thought of traveling was extra exhausting. We were only planning to be gone for one night, but I have learned that there is a baseline quantity of crap you must schlepp with you on a trip when you have a small child, no matter how many days you’ll be gone – sunscreen, sun hats, fourteen pairs of underwear per day, Tylenol, a thermometer, a book per minute for the car ride, special snack foods, his blankie,the stuffed animals Hippo and Fluffy Rainbow, swim diapers for the hotel pool, baby wipes. You get the idea. Assembling it all seemed like a tremendous amount of work.

But Jay and I have been talking about the importance of getting out and doing things. Having both a small child and a chronic illness too often resigns us to just staying home every weekend. If I’m not sick with something, or Andrew’s not hacking with the latest cold, or I’m not having some type of medical crisis involving expensive monitoring or testing, or we’re not preparing to go on or recovering from one of our quarterly medical field trips to Philadelphia, or we’re not planning a family trip of some kind…we’re usually too exhausted to dynamite ourselves from the house. It gets kind of depressing, though, limiting travel to see doctors or parents, so we’ve pledged to take tiny trips. The powwow was just this – an opportunity to see a piece of the world as a family, without thoroughly kicking the crap out of ourselves.

Once we were on the road, it was perfect and the ton of stuff in the trunk seemed worth the effort. The drive was scenic, and we were forced to go at a more leisurely pace than we normally do. Andrew announced, “I have to go pee,” about every 14 minutes. We’d stop the car, and he would squeeze out a few precious drops of urine. It reminded me of walking my dog when she was fixated on marking her territory. Stop, pee, stop, pee, stop, pee. We listened to all of Andrew’s favorite songs on the iPod, but “Rawhide” and a cheesy Romanian dance tune got repeated the most.

“I love this hotel,” Andrew shrieked as soon as we were in the room. Who knows what it was about that Best Western that made it so special. Maybe the fact that we let him bounce on the bed, or perhaps because it had a pool. (Why is that children so love hotel pools? I know kids who have swimming pools in their back yards who still whip themselves into a frenzy over a hotel pool.)

While we waited to meet up with Rob, we tried to prep Andrew on the upcoming events. We explained that we were going to see some very special dancing – just like we had witnessed in Thailand – done by special people. “Will there be elephants?” Andrew asked hopefully, remembering the painfully touristy cultural show we had taken him to in Thailand. “No. No elephants, but there might be horses,” we said, watching his little face fall. Two-year olds do a terrible job of hiding their disappointment. They do an equally poor job of being culturally sensitive, which was a big concern for Jay and me. You see, there are not many people of color in Helena, Montana. Having brown eyes practically qualifies you as a minority in this town. The two dominant ethnic groups are Irish and German. There are a couple of African-Americans, some South Asian tech people who work for the state, and no Latin American immigrants. You’d think we would have a lot of Native Americans, but most of them prefer to live either on their reservations or in bigger cities like Great Falls or Billings. I didn’t want Andrew to gawk and point at people at the powwow. I also didn’t want him to do something like a toddler we know who saw black folks in Denver, pointed at them, and told her Dad, “Look! Germans!”

The monochromatic hue of Helena is one of the few things about this place that drives me crazy. Not to be too self-absorbed, but the lack of immigrants means that the food sucks here, if you want to eat something besides slabs of meat or mediocre pasta. No Indian buffets for lunch, no steaming bowls of pho at Vietnamese restaurants, no Ethiopian feasts, not even a decent Chinese meal. Mexican food here means meat with seven pounds of cheese melted on it. There is one Thai restaurant, but it serves the coconut-heavy curries of the southern Thailand, not the spicier stuff from the eastern part of the country that we like.

I am also one of those people who genuinely like diversity. I think there are two types of people in this world: those that feel their best when they are with people most like them, and those who feel their best when they are in strange situations with people unlike them. I am definitely in the latter camp. I’ve done a fair amount of traveling, particularly around Asia and the Pacific, and I greatly admire the cultures (and the food!) of that part of the world. But close to home, I also like hearing different languages; I like learning different perspectives; I like seeing how people choose to inhabit this world in unique ways. Perhaps it’s because my family moved so much and traveled so extensively that I feel my most at ease when I’m the minority. When I was five years old, we camped through Eastern Europe (before the Wall came down), and I have to think that this experience of otherness was formative for me.

One of things that sarcoidosis has robbed from me is travel. A few months ago, Jay, Andrew, and I finally took a trip overseas to Thailand, but we forced ourselves to stay on somewhat beaten paths and check in with my doctors before I left. No more renting cars and driving to the Burmese border. No more wandering into Laos for a day of shopping, or camping on remote islands, or eating grubs with chili sauce. Since my illness has made it difficult for us to leave here easily, Andrew hasn’t been exposed to different cultures and people as much as I’d like. (Lots of people would say I’m being a touch melodramatic here. Andrew did spend three weeks in Thailand. He still talks about the Thai friends he made, play-acts with his stuffed animals that they are walking to Thai town called Chontaburi, and eats lahb nua, a meat salad. Plus one upside of all my medical tourism is that he’s gotten to spend time in larger, more diverse cities like Denver, New York and Philadelphia.  That said, there is so much more that I want to show him.)

I don’t know why we were worried. Andrew handles everything with aplomb, and the powwow was no different. I should have remembered that he was right at home from the moment we got to Thailand, chattering in his own made-up tonal language to kids on the beach, gleefully eating fried hot dogs from street vendors in Bangkok, and gamely switching from a fork to chopsticks. He took the powwow in the same sort of stride. He played with other little kids, squatting in the dust. He sat rapt during the singing and dancing and drumming under the lights Saturday evening. Once he got the pattern down, he even sang along in the ululating style of Indian singers. The dancers captivated him, particularly the jingle dancers, who had sewn dozens of bells into their elaborate and colorful costumes and danced so that the bells tinkled in time with the drumming. He also liked the men dressed in costume with feather headdresses and wings on their backs, but he was more interested in driving his trucks on the grandstands by the time we saw them Sunday afternoon. The only person who stood out was me. Jay is olive-skinned enough to blend in, and Andrew was just another kid crouching in the dust and wailing when I tried to force him to drink water. I, on the other hand, am 5’9, not slight of build, and about as white as you can get. My hair is strawberry blonde, my eyes blue, my skin almost blueish in its tint. To my credit, though, I did not point at the Native Americans and call them Germans.

This week, we have all felt buoyed by the trip. We didn’t fly across the world, or even across the country, but we hung out with Rob’s kind and open family, saw amazing dancing, and got to step out of the every-day routine of child care, work, and medical appointments that too often makes our lives pallid and monotonous. People talk about “baby steps” to accomplish difficult tasks like losing weight or going back to school. I think I’d rather advocate “toddler steps” for fun. We’ll follow Andrew’s example, and take small little hops, with an occasional skip thrown in, and enjoy the world around us at ground level. It’s not Ethiopia or Laos, but it sure beats the hell out of staying at home and pining for a big adventure.

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