Monthly Archives: July 2006

Atheist Mom

Driving past Harkins a few weeks ago, I saw a woman standing on the sidewalk holding up a homemade sign that proclaimed: “Jesus would not approve.” Well of course he wouldn’t approve I thought to myself, who would approve of them remaking the greatest big-ship-gets-flipped-over-by-rogue-wave story ever told? After all, once you’ve witnessed the immortal Ernest Borgnine holding back tears as Shelly Winters’ lifeless body floats past the porthole, where is there to go but down? And then, unfortunately, it dawned on me: the lone Harkins protester probably wasn’t protesting the remake of The Poseidon Adventure; she was protesting The Da Vinci Code. I say unfortunately, because her protest meant that I now felt obligated to go see it, and there are few movies that I would less rather see: remember, we’re talking about a movie here that is based on a book that has been described by some critics as being like “eavesdropping on a conversation between two drunk sorority girls”. But no matter: once I saw that Jesus sign I just had to go: it’s an atheist thing.

I’ve been an atheist since I was eleven. And, before you ask, it wasn’t anything traumatic that happened to me at age 11 that inspired my atheism: it was a chance encounter with a volume of works by Voltaire that did it. Well, actually it was a not-so-chance encounter, seeing as how this particular book was just one of the many books my grandfather would often slip me on my way out of his door. (His habit of slipping me books by authors as diverse as Voltaire, P.G. Wodehouse and Edgar Rice Burroughs taught me more than all the lectures he could have ever delivered: he could literally speak volumes without ever saying a word).

One book I’m sure that he never would have slipped me, however (even if it had been written at the time) was The Da Vinci Code; as a scientist he would have been appalled by both the tenuous connections Dan Brown makes and his overt use of religious symbolism. Not to mention the fact that as an avid reader he would have been appalled at the cheesy writing. On second thought, however, maybe The Da Vinci Code is exactly the kind of book he would’ve slipped me: if killer albino monks aren’t enough to put you off your religion, than I don’t know what is. Not that I think he was trying to put me off of religion when he slipped me the Voltaire; he was just trying to open my eyes to other possibilities, which is exactly what he did.

This is something I have been trying to keep in mind lately as I watch Clementine on her spin through the worlds’ religions. So far, she has been a Buddhist, a Hindu and, judging from the state of her hair, a Rastafarian. She has also been through a Christian phase whereby she would drop to her knees and pray over dead animals, plants and bugs. (I tell myself it was Christian only because I like to ignore the fact that the over-the-top melodrama of it all clearly screamed “Scientologist”).

Recently she has begun to claim that she, too, is an atheist, but somehow I still doubt it: her love of ghost stories alone places her commitment to a supernatural-free lifestyle in question. If anything, she is (shudder) an agnostic. Truthfully, though, whatever belief system she eventually arrives at will be ok with me–even something as wishy-washy as agnosticism–as long as it makes her happy and allows her unfettered access to her dreams. Of course, hopefully her dreams won’t involve standing outside of movie theaters holding up cardboard signs protesting the latest Tom Hanks movie. Unless he is doing a remake of The Towering Inferno. Then I’m with her all the way.

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Sniff Sniff

When I was a child we used to talk about the worst form of torture we had ever heard of: the Chinese Water Torture (they mentioned it once on an episode of Wild, Wild West, which I watched religiously every day after school; I was enamored of the sidekick, Artemus Gordon. I always went for the sidekicks; they just seemed like they would be so grateful). Anyway, even though this torture was reputed to be the most heinous torture in all the world, I’ll admit that even after hearing it described so evocatively by none other than Artemus himself it never really sounded all that impressive to me. (Although this could be because I grew up in Phoenix, and therefore found it almost impossible to conceive of anything unpleasant about having some lovely, cool water dripping on your head.) I mean, really, what would be so bad about a little water dripping somewhere, even if that somewhere was your forehead? Surely you could just ignore it and concentrate on something else, like maybe learning enough Chinese to ask your torturers to please knock it off? Then I had kids and discovered that when it comes to the truly most heinous torture in all the world, the Chinese Water Torture isn’t even in the running. The truth is, nothing beats the Childhood Nasal Torture.

This is the torture everyone must endure who is within hearing distance of a child with a runny nose. It is also known as the Snuffleufugus Effect. You hear it in the middle of the night. Sniff. Sniff. You hear it while they’re watching TV. Sniff. Sniff. You hear it at the dinner table, from inside the bathroom, from outside on the swings. Sniff. Sniff. Finally, when you can’t stand to hear it anymore, you explode into a frenzy of “Oh, for the love of God! Please just go and blow your nose!” Which they do. Weakly. Feebly. As if the Kleenex contained some tiny and beautifully precious little city that they must not, under any circumstances, disturb. Pfiffle goes their pathetic little blow, and then maybe 30 seconds pass in peace before it begins again. Sniff. Sniff.

When this trait first emerged in my children I blamed my husband. This, after all, is a man who is so fastidious about his own nose that he refuses to even pick it: if I point out a small extrusion he will flutter at it ineffectively with his knuckles or shake his head about like a horse trying to catch the bit, but under no circumstances will he get in there and get to work. I, on the other hand, am so enamored with picking my nose that I once even let it get in the way of fashion–I removed not one but two nose rings in the early 90s because I didn’t like how they interfered with “the work”.

Of course, it may be my very fascination with all things nasal that has put the fear of nose blowing into my children in the first place. I’m sure that one of their earliest memories (if not the earliest) is of our trusty old big blue bulb syringe swooping down on them in the middle of the night like some kind of alien probe, eagerly sucking up all of that mucus they had worked so hard to create. (Just as I’m also sure that one of my husband’s most disturbing memories is being chased through our house by a demented woman holding a bulb full of snot and shouting “Look at it! Just look at it! Can you believe that all that came from her? I mean, look at it: it’s like half the size of her head!”).

Which leads me to what must really be the most heinous form of torture (for my husband, at least): spousal snot fixation. Sniff. Sniff.

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Bette Davis Eyes

When Dick Cheney shot a fellow hunter in the face recently, Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” commented that it was times like those that made him feel guilty for cashing his paycheck–his job was that easy. As I walked out of our kitchen the other day, suddenly I knew exactly how he felt: standing there before me was my very own gift to column writing, my daughter, Clementine. Or perhaps I should say a reasonable facsimile of my daughter, Clementine, as the person standing before me had absolutely no eyebrows, and I was certain that the last time I had checked, my daughter did. Quite nice ones, too.

It was like stepping into a re-enactment of Pink Floyd’s The Wall: I half expected her to start singing, “Are there any queers in the audience tonight? Get them up against the wall!” When she didn’t, I went ahead and asked the question that I already knew had no answer: “Why?” As I had suspected, the answer was a shrug and a “I dunno”.

I could accept this, perhaps because as a fellow female, I, too, have made more than my share of bad fashion choices over the years: everything from fluorescent pink leg warmers, to shaving my arms, to the dreaded 1980s “schlong” haircut (short on top, long on the sides). My husband, on the other hand, was not so understanding: he seemed to take it as a personal affront. (He also failed to appreciate that, by Clementine cutting off her own eyebrows we had dodged a bullet: usually when unauthorized eyebrow excisement takes place it takes place on the faces of younger, gullible siblings–and frequently involves not just the eyebrows, but every single hair on the head. The thought that it could be a bald-headed Clyde standing before us, however, failed to mollify him).

“Why would she do that? Why?” he kept asking. I’m not sure if he was more upset with her shrugged “I dunno” or my unconcerned, “I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time–maybe she was hot, like Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite.”

Whether or not it was the heat that made her do it, in one sense she was like Pedro–it wasn’t long before she regretted what she had done. She didn’t exactly say this, but I got the idea when she came out of her room the next morning with a brand new set of eyebrows drawn onto her face. You’d think that, as upset as my husband had been by the eyebrow removal, he would have been happier about their reappearance, but this just wasn’t the case–if anything, he was more upset than ever. Of course, this might have had something to do with the fact that, in her enthusiasm, Clementine had given herself more than Nature had intended–much more. Now she no longer looked like Bob Geldof; she looked like Groucho Marx. Again I expected her to start quoting movie lines, only now something along the lines of: “I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. What he was doing in my pajamas I’ll never know.”

Of course, the nice thing is that it doesn’t really matter which model she follows: the Bob Geldof or the Groucho one, since both of them turned out pretty well. Geldof even managed to get himself knighted for his work with Live Aid, and although Groucho did develop some strange habits in his old age–including hanging out with Alice Cooper–at least he kept his sense of humor until the end.

Which is what, eventually, my husband regained as well–right after he saw how it looked when Clementine combined her three inches of ballpoint eyebrows with a pair of dark glasses to hide behind.

In fact, he was laughing so hard he could hardly hear her answer to his gasped out: “Why?” Maybe I dunno really was the “secret woid”.

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Not To Play

This summer, a friend and I are planning to split childcare: I’ll take them in the morning; he’ll have them in the afternoon. Even though we have very different parenting styles (and both think that the other one is completely wrong), I was actually thinking that everything was going to work out just fine–that is, until we got on to the subject of playing, and the fact that, I don’t.

It all came up when we were discussing strategies for what to do during swimming lessons: because the children are all at different levels, their lessons will be at different times throughout the morning. The question that arose was: what to do with the non-swimming children while the swimmers are in the pool?

My answer was: nothing. There is a perfectly lovely playground on one side of the pool; even better, there’s a perfectly unlovely ditch on the other side of it, full of all sorts of broken glass, dead animals and flood-mangled garbage; in short, child heaven. His answer, on the other hand, was that I should bring a ball. “A ball? What for?” I asked, thinking that the only possible use for a ball would be as a weapon to drive the children back into the playground/ditch whenever they came out chanting their “I’m bored” mantra, and, realistically, to repel a revolt like that I would need a whole lot more than just one lousy ball (luckily, this ditch also comes well-supplied with rocks).

He, however, was obviously thinking something completely different:“To play with them,” he said. “Otherwise, what’s the point of having you watch them?” I considered telling him that the point was for me to make sure that they only lit one M-60 at a time, didn’t run with my good scissors, and didn’t get ripped off too badly by the local drug dealers (“You paid what? For that?”), but instead I confined myself to one raised eyebrow, my best “have we met?” look, and a clearly enunciated, “I-don’t-play.” The problem with that answer, though, was that technically it was not strictly true: I do play, but only on my own terms.

For example: I love playing board games that don’t involve the Gumdrop Forest; croquet when the main objective is to knock everyone else’s ball off of the field; and even a nice game of “horse” on the basketball court (it gives me a chance to show off my deadly “reverse granny” shot). However, my love for all those games is confined to the times when I am the one who actually wants to play them, and not when they are demanded of me by some child complaining about being bored.

I think that boredom is underrated. As adults we sometimes lose sight of this, perhaps because we confuse it with tedium, a condition we encounter so often either in our jobs or in unfulfilling tasks such as standing in line at the DMV. It is tedium, therefore, that we think we are rescuing our children from whenever we answer their complaints of boredom with x-boxes and playdates, which is really too bad, because true boredom is as rare as it is wonderful. It is the catalyst that is needed to invent all the truly great games of childhood, the ones that send you limping into the house at the end of the day with mysterious bruises and sworn blood oaths “not to tell”; the games that can only exist in the vacuum of adult interference and structured “play activities” (unless, of course, the adult who is structuring these activities happens to be Courteney Love).

It is boredom that leads to the kind of games that are dangerous, shocking, and profane, the ones that test their participants to their utmost limits. In other words, the very best possible sort. Good luck getting all that out of a ball.

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