Put the Canoe in the Paddle


In this installment of “Love, Recorded,” the baby turns terrible two, Minnie Mouse is the new Gangnam Style, and nature defies nature.

My parents live for the warm half of the year on a campground in Connecticut. They have a camper like a trailer home, which never moves. The campground has a river and a swimming hole with spring water (and tadpoles) and acres of peace and quiet. Almost so much that no one knows what to do with themselves.

Here, my mother throws a party for my daughter’s second birthday, to the theme of Minnie Mouse. Minnie Mouse, these days, is the new Gangnam Style. Minnie is the toy that brushes Grace’s teeth (with my hand over the mouse’s paw), that gets her best behavior in restaurants (via the iPad), that she shows off to visitors. It is funny, my wife says, how our nephews came naturally to cars and trains, and Grace to a mouse in a pink dress and polka dots.

Soon, we will move across the country, far from my parents. This may be Grace’s last birthday in the Northeast for a while. Minnie Mouse is a sure way to make a lasting impression.


Birthdays can be difficult for adoptees. Other adoptees I know have complicated relationships with their birthdays—birthdays that are sometimes guesses. I am always on watch for triggers that might stop me in time, for the changes that can come suddenly and make things hard that used to be normal parts of life. My second birthday was my last in Korea before my adoption. It was spent in an orphanage, as far as I know. I have no memory of that time, so I don’t know how, or whether, it was celebrated. For me, birthdays have never carried the weight of my birth family. As far as I know.

My wife’s grandfather passed away on my birthday, and I did spend one birthday in Korea pouting at an anniversary ceremony. That day, my birthday carried the weight of death, which wasn’t a weight I was prepared for.

I am grateful to my parents that we never celebrated the loss of my Korean life. We never called my adoption day, “Gotcha Day.” We treated those marks as marks in a continuous life.


Next year, Grace will have a Texan birthday. She will be old enough for preschool. A few days ago, my wife said people’s old lives come back when the baby turns 3. Maybe this is a reason to have another baby. Maybe it’s a reason not to have one.

love, recordedAt the campground, my mother has hung a Minnie Mouse banner across the mosquito screen, and Grace points out her “friend” immediately. We eat on Minnie Mouse plates. Grace has brought a Minnie Mouse doll with her—she has two, one big and one small enough to fit in an adult hand.

My mother walks her granddaughter around the grounds, showing her off to the neighbors, whom I am sure have heard about her. There is a family visiting from California, with some older children to play with. It is only children Grace’s age that are too unpredictable, says the doctors, for her to feel comfortable around. The fact that even a 2-year-old finds 2-year-olds too wild is not lost on me.

The family go down to the river for a swim, and my wife and I take out a canoe. I remember how my father used to say, “Put the canoe in the paddle,” when he would get frustrated with our poor water skills/youth. He never let us sit in the back. Now I sit in the back and am tempted to shout, “Put the canoe in the paddle,” just for fun. My wife turns to face me, from the front, paddling backward. We head upstream, to make the return trip easier.

We paddle for 10 minutes before she misses the baby. I want to keep going toward the far shore, where we can look at the riverfront houses and imagine ourselves a better life. We go a few more feet and then turn around. But we don’t seem to be getting anywhere. We notice that the river has developed small waves, and the waves are coming toward us. We know we went upstream—we know this river from past trips—and yet now we are paddling against a current. It is wrong, that the river can fight us both ways.

Maybe a motor boat went by, more than once, zigzagging. Or maybe nature has stopped trying to make any sense.


When my mother’s best friend arrives, we open presents. Grace gets one Minnie Mouse thing after another. She looks up at us as if asking whether this is possibly for real. Is all of this Minnie Stuff truly for her?

My wife and I are impressed. The baby is in a Minnie Mouse trance. My mother says she got everything from their cold-season home—Florida—during a trip to Disney World. Grace’s favorite present is a Minnie Mouse backpack, into which she will put her Minnie doll: Minnie in Minnie. I wish I could say I was getting paid by Disney to write this.

Grandma is Grace’s new favorite person.

As Grace plays with her presents, I think how amazing it is to see such uncomplicated joy. There is no little voice in my daughter’s head saying this could all disappear, or there must be a downside. There is only, I got what I most wanted without even knowing it was want-able.


And then it is time to go home. All day, Grace hasn’t napped. Too much excitement/Minnie Mouse. She is clearly tired, but she refuses to sleep/leave. Why, I can see her wondering, does she have to leave this place of Minnie for a birthdayless city? Even the iPad isn’t enough to convince her, not that she has new toys and no reason to think she won’t get more.

“Just put her in the carseat,” my mother says over the screaming. “She’ll fall asleep two minutes later.”

We try letting Grace have one last walk, then we try buckling her in and hightailing it. When we get to the exit gate, she is still screaming. We stop the car and try to rock her to sleep. My wife carries her off toward the woods in the heat. I run my hand through the sweat in my hair.

I see my father walking up the hill from the campers. It feels like he has caught us at something illicit. I try to explain how Grace was never going to stop crying. My father smiles and waits. It almost seems like my wife has gotten Grace to sleep, but then the transfer to the car seat restarts her motor.

We look sheepishly toward my father. We keep Grace’s line of sight away from him, away from the hope that we might simply return to the grandparents.

Finally, we get her in with the iPad. We wonder how long she can keep her eyes open. We wonder how long she can make the day last, how much will she can put into her happiness. I have to stop for coffee to keep myself from nodding off. We stop for gas. Two hours pass on the road. When we pull back into Watertown, my mother calls. The baby is singing. 2 years old, wide-eyed, impressive.

–photo Flickr/Manu_H

About Matthew Salesses

Matthew Salesses contributed to the very first day of The Good Men Project. He writes the "Love, Recorded" column about his wife, baby, and cats. He has written for The New York Times, NPR, the Center for Asian American Media, Salon, The Rumpus, and others. He is the author, most recently, of Different Racisms: On Stereotypes, the Individual, and Asian American masculinity. See more at his eponymous website. Contact him via email or @salesses.


  1. Thank you, Renee. Honored to have you and your son read my work.

  2. Matthew,
    I am new to your work but am catching up on your columns. As an adoptive mother of a boy and a girl from Korea, I really appreciate your candor about your experience regarding your adoption, identity, and racism in the US. I will be recommending your work, especially to my son who has struggled mightily with adoption/identity and continues to do so.
    Best to you and your beautiful family…

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