Monthly Archives: September 2006


The first thing you need to know about me is that I love to argue: as far as I’m concerned, religion and politics are the building–not the stumbling–blocks of a lovely dinner conversation. Just ask my husband: I will happily debate anyone, anywhere, anytime (prior knowledge of the subject at hand being a helpful, but not entirely necessary, prerequisite). Given all of that, I was never one to be daunted by the prospect of arguing with my children as they got older: on the contrary, I was looking forward to it. I envisioned a house full of impassioned dinner table debates on subjects as diverse as capital punishment, legalizing marijuana, and school dress codes. Sure, every now and then I knew that there would be debates more along the lines of which contestant should be the next one booted off of Hell’s Kitchen, but for the most part I thought that the quality of the rhetoric would be witty, erudite, and urbane–sort of like my own private Oscar Wilde play. What I ended up with, though, couldn’t have been more different: not only have our daily “debates” failed to reach the levels of sophistication I was dreaming of, at some times they even fail to reach a level of comprehension. This is because, for the most part, my children’s arguments are completely dumb.
By “dumb” I don’t mean to imply that their arguments are naive, although that is often the case.

“Why can’t everything be free?” says Clementine as she flips through the same toy catalog she has just ripped from her little brother’s hands with a shriek of “That’s MINE!”.

And I don’t mean to imply that their arguments are nonsensical; although that, too, is often the case.

“It’s no fair that our brains get to tell us what to do,” says Clyde, seemingly considering his own gray matter to be some sort of parasitical overlord.

No, I mean that their arguments are just plain stupid.

“Put on a raincoat,” I’ll say as Clementine heads out the door into a Class V hurricane.

“It’s not raining,” she’ll respond.

“Yes, it is,” I’ll counter, as our neighbors wave to us from their kayak in the middle of the street.

“I don’t see any rain.”

At that point, it’s on: back and forth like some sort of Abbot and Costello routine, until I am completely frustrated both by the fact that not only have we spent the last twenty minutes arguing, but that we have spent the last twenty minutes arguing about something so patently stupid. Maybe I took too many philosophy classes as an undergraduate, but I was always under the impression that debate was supposed to be about the intangibles: what is the nature of love, who owns the concept of honor, do two wrongs ever make a right. I had no idea that sober people could actually get into an argument over whether or not water falling from the sky qualified as “rain”. It’s like living with a future President of the United States.

At this rate, the next thing she’ll be debating is what the meaning of “is” is, or worse yet, arguing that even though we have not yet found any tangible evidence of sunshine, this fact does not imply that the sun is not still shining in some hidden bunker even as we speak.

I never imagined that the day would come when I’d actually be looking forward to debating the merits of Hell’s Kitchen?

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I have always been fascinated by the condition known as idiot savant, whereby a person can be highly skilled in one specific talent (like mathematics or painting), while remaining almost completely helpless when it comes to performing common, everyday tasks like getting dressed or pouring a bowl of cereal. How, I’ve always wondered, could a person with such obvious intelligence and/or motor skills not be able to perform the most basic chores of daily existence? How could the same person who is capable of calculating upper level algebraic equations in their head not be able to tell time on a digital clock? And then, as with so many things in my life, this, mystery, too was finally solved–once I had children.

Not that I can now claim to understand the “savant” part of the equation any better: it’s not like my children are writing theorems in their spare time. (In fact, the introduction of double digit multiplication into Clementine’s fourth grade classroom recently led her to announce, upon arriving back home, “Well, that’s it: I’m doomed.” It was refreshing to see that instead of waiting for life to beat her down, she has instead taken a proactive approach and given up on life early). No, unfortunately, my children’s role in providing me with newfound understanding of this condition has been more “idiot” than “savant.”

The fact is, that while my children are normally quite dexterous and clever, they also have a knack for being completely undone by tasks as simple as opening dresser drawers, putting on shoes, and placing socks in the dirty clothes hamper. Fortunately, I can take comfort in knowing that in this they are not alone: judging by what I have seen and heard in other families, this seeming reversal of skills–where a previously competent child reverts to a semi-vegetative state upon being asked to perform household chores–is a common enough malady that it has earned a name of its own: idiot enfant.

The odd thing is that, although very common, idiot enfant appears to hardly ever have been studied. (A quick search of leading medical journals will turn up nothing under this name, I can assure you). Perhaps this is because of the affliction’s transient nature: it has a tendency to disappear at seemingly random times. For example: the case of a child who, while in the throes of an idiot enfant episode, suddenly “forgets” how to put on their shoes when they are told it is now time to go to the dentist; strangely enough, an immediate remission may be brought about by something as simple as changing the word “dentist” to “candy store”.

Or there’s the case of the child who, despite have spent the previous week very competently negotiating shuttles, airports and attending an out of state camp all on her own, upon returning home can’t seem to remember how to use the front door, and stands there kicking it in helpless rage. (This is also the same child who will later storm off to bed insisting, “I can’t wait until I’m old enough to get a job and live on my own”, and yet will not, in the grumpiness of the following morning, be able to pour her own cereal into a bowl.)

My only hope is that someday this heart-breaking condition will get the attention it deserves, and children all over the world will no longer have to face the humiliation of telling their mothers that the cereal bowl they were asked to rinse out must remain dirty because they have “forgotten how to turn on the water.” As far as I’m concerned, this couldn’t happen soon enough: it appears that the condition may be catching: how else could you explain a man who has spent at least ten years of his adult life as a bachelor suddenly “forgetting” that colors and whites get washed separately?

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Nuts and Balls

When I asked my 5-year-old son, Clyde, how his day at kindergarten had gone, I didn’t expect to get a full blow by blow account–complete with sound effects–but that is exactly what I got. This meant that, when he got to the part about somehow landing “wrong” on a piece of playground equipment, he recreated the scene by staggering around the kitchen, clutching his relevant parts and shouting: “Oh my nuts! Oh my balls! Oh my nuts and balls!”

And yet again I was reminded that boys and girls are different. When Clementine was Clyde’s age I was always very determined that she learn the correct words for all her body parts. She did not have a “coochi”, a “hoo-ha” or even a “down there”–she had a vagina. Also, she would not one day be growing a baby in her “tummy” (not unless she was involved in some bizarre cross-gender/cross-species relationship with a seahorse); she would be growing one in her uterus. And those things up top? Not “chi-chis” or “num-nums” but breasts and nipples.

With Clyde, however, it’s a whole different story. Although in the beginning I tried using the word “penis” in our bath time discussions, it wasn’t long before I had to give it up: immediately upon saying the “p” word Monty Python’s “Penis Song” begins to play in a continuous loop in my brain, one that takes me days to fully remove. And so “pecker” was born.

As for “nuts” and “balls”, I’m not ready to take the blame for that one (until recently I never found the need to discuss those particular parts with Clyde at all, let alone name them), but I’ll admit that if I had been the one to introduce the subject, those would likely have been the words I would have chosen. What can I say? Even though Monty Python has no songs celebrating “testicles” or “scrotum” (that I know of), I seriously doubt I could ever be induced to say those words to Clyde (or anyone else) while keeping a straight face.

Why is it that when it comes to male genitalia, the proper name is the one that makes you giggle, while the slang word is the one that sounds correct? This makes it almost impossible for me to have a serious discussion with Clyde about his body parts; with Clementine it was so much easier: the slang names for female genitalia sound either so patronizing or so insulting that you don’t want to use them. With boy parts, however, using any words other than slang just makes you sound fruity.

This would explain why it took me so long, then, to recognize the basic problem with Clyde’s lament of “Oh my nuts and balls”: at first it just sounded like a slangier version of what I’ve heard all my life, sort of like the “Cheese and Rice!” a Baptist says when he hits his thumb with a hammer. I didn’t fully realize that it signaled a real misunderstanding of his own anatomy until it became the subject of yet another bath time discussion, one where I tried to explain that it was either ‘nuts’ or ‘balls’–he had to pick one. “But there’s two,” he replied, perplexed. When I told him it didn’t matter–he could only call them one thing at a time, the ensuing “Why?” was just as confused. After a long pause I had to admit that I had no idea.

Whoever said that male anatomy is easier to understand because it’s all out in the open obviously never had to deal with a very logical (and wet) 5-year-old. Again: I never had this problem with Clementine–and probably never will; with any luck, by the time she’s old enough to want to know the difference between a cervix and a uterus she’ll be too embarrassed to ask her mother.

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I am always struck by how often, when we tell stories about our “crazy” parents, they revolve around food. My own personal crazy story involves the time I was three and tried to pretend that I’d finished my dinner while my Mom was out of the room. On the one hand, it was precociously clever of me to leap into action and scrape my plate into the trash can in the two minutes it took her to answer the phone and return; on the other, it was appallingly stupid of me to think that anyone would believe I’d finished a full plate of food in so short a time, especially since part of my dinner had been a piece of chicken still on the (now missing) bone. It wasn’t long before the tell-tale drumstick was back in front of me, this time much the worse for wear: it seems that was the day when all of the ashtrays and hairbrushes in the entire house (to my three-year-old eyes, the entire world) had been cleaned. Needless to say, it was a meal that I did not soon forget; and a trick that I did not ever try again.

The stories I hear from other people all seem to play on the same theme: whether it’s the one about the uneaten food item making a surprise guest appearance at every meal until it is finally consumed, or the one about an entire meal being peremptorily withdrawn (and replaced with a big ol’ bowl of nothing) after a complaint had been lodged against it, all of the best stories of parents behaving madly seem to involve food.

I was reminded of this quite forcefully the other day as I stared at the unhappy faces in front of me eating pizza at a sleepover at my house. Now, normally, pizza and sleepover do not combine to equal unhappy, but on this occasion–when the pizza in question had been thrown around the yard as a not-so-damn-funny (at least to the person who had paid for the pizza)“joke” and was now covered in gravel and wood chips–unhappy was definitely the mot juste. There were some threats of imminent puking, and a near swoon or two, but I’m guessing that it will be a long time until any of those children confuse food with projectiles while spending the night at my house.

Sometimes I think that we as parents forget to play the crazy card–the one where we go completely off message, say “screw the time out”, and hand down a punishment worthy of Solomon. This is when you do something so completely over the top–like madly tossing every toy in sight into a big garbage bag–that you trump absolutely everything else that is occurring at the moment: temper tantrums, sibling rivalry, whining at a pitch only dogs can hear. There is nothing else quite like it in our arsenal. It is the moment when your children finally realize that yes, you can be driven over the edge, that for all they know there might be seven or eight of their older, unknown siblings– the ones who didn’t straighten up and fly right–buried in the back yard at this very moment, and by God they better watch their step around this woman, because she is absolutely, freakin’, nuts.

Crazy works. Just like having to eat that hairy, ashy chicken leg worked on me, and hopefully eating the extra piquant pizza worked on the kids at Clementine’s sleepover. Some would argue that I shouldn’t have taken it to the crazy level; that I should’ve started out smaller, like taking away their permission to play Game Cube for the night. Somehow though, I doubt that when they think back on that night any of them would ever remember the time they threw pizza at a sleepover, and the Mom got so mad she “took away their right to play Sonic for a day”.

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