Winter in Minneapolis has disguised itself as spring, even summer, under billows of warm air. There has been no hunkering down. We've fled indoor confinement for the open space of our sidewalks and yard. Little A and I have been on the search for outdoor activities. We're willing, sort of, to get a little messier, to change our clothes more than once a day, to sit on warm concrete and rocks, and to put ice cubes in our beverages.
Last week I came across a toddler activity that involved freezing prehistoric critters (plastic, not, you know, created from DNA captured in amber) into blocks of ice and letting your kid free them with toothbrushes and spoons and plastic knives and water and paintbrushes and their own ingenuity. These, like many toddler activities found on beautiful blogs full of long-haired gender-neutral kids or sugar and spice girls and snakes and snails boys, are the sorts of things that the mental picture of myself aspires to do. See -- they aren't even things that I aspire to, they are things that my aspirational self aspires to.
It's warm in Minneapolis -- but not ice-block paleontologist warm -- so I opted to create our excavation site out of gelatin. Messy enough to be relegated to the outdoors but not cold enough that I'd have a "the time my toddler got frost burn in 70 degree weather" story.
My idea would be that I could plop her down on the lawn where she'd spend hours carefully extracting small plastic animals from the gelatin I'd made the night before. She giggle at her own amazement and problem solving skills while I sat in the sun with a novel and iced tea. Afterwards, she'd be messy and sticky, but happy and I'd be clean and relaxed. I'd dunk her in the tub and she'd play with her newly rescued animals and then sleep soundly upstairs while I crocheted an afghan. Oh, aspirational self and your mental images: one day you will be brought down to reality.
I successfully created the mold the night before (OK, fine, I had to stay up an extra thirty minutes past the last episode of Friday Night Lights that we'd watched in order to set the animals in gelatin that was firm enough that the animals wouldn't sink but not so firm that it would crack.) In the morning, after Little A's dad went to work, I set out the gelatin on a cookie sheet with plastic and wooden spoons and knives and forks, pointed my kid in the right direction and sat back.
"Oh!" she said. She rubbed her hands gingerly across the slimy mass. "It's cold! Animals stuck in there!"
"You wanna get them out?"
"Look. There are knives and spoons and forks you can use to get them out."
"Not too sharp. You can use them."
She stabbed a knife into the mold.
"Sit your lap."
"I'm just going to sit over --."
"No! Sit your lap!" OK, I thought, just get her started on it and then you can sneak off.
She sat in my lap. We stabbed at the gelatin together, her hand wrapped around the tiny pink handle and my hand wrapped around hers. Gradually, a chunk of gelatin containing the sheep slipped off.
"You can use your hands," I told her, holding the blob out to her.
She poked at it with her finger tip. "You do it!"
I sighed and reluctantly pulled dots and dabs of the clear stick substance off the sheep.
"Look! It's free!" I said.
"Do you want another one?"
"You do another one."
"You can use the spoon while I use the knife."
"You do it."
Remember the novel I was going to sit back and read? Remember my glass of iced tea? Remember my sticky, messy, happy kid? Yeah, so do I.
The truth was that she ended up sitting on my lap the whole time. We poked and picked at the mold. We freed animals together, which we were both excited about. She wiped her hands on her dress a lot. I mostly used the tips of my fingers to poke and prod.
My kid, I realized, just doesn't really like to get messy. I thought this as I washed her new animals and my hands in the sink. I wonder where she got that from? Is it just genetics or is it because she's watching me not wanting to smash my hands into the gelatin, wanting, rather, to sit back and read a novel while she gets messy and I don't.
Afterwards, most of the animals free and only the last few stiff legged and frozen in the messy globs, Little A sat on the back step and lined up her animals next to her. She picked up a tiny, rose-colored octopus and tried to rock it in the crook of her arm. She might not like to get messy, but at least she can find affection for even the most cold-blooded of plastic animals.