Monthly Archives: October 2006

TV Free

This summer, my family, together with several other families, took a mini-vacation to a Forest Service cabin in Oak Creek Canyon. Considering the fact that this “cabin” had two kitchens, three fireplaces and a picture window perfectly framing Cathedral Rock, I hardly considered it rustic. The kids, however, thought we were taking them on some kind of survival quest: There was no TV.

At first, the very concept was difficult for them to grasp.

“Is there a DVD player?” they asked.

“There’s no TV,” we replied.

“What about Game Cube?”

“No TV.”


By this time, having long since slipped into my sarcastic mode (not a long trip under any circumstance), I replied that yes, as a matter of fact there was cable: The most glorious cable they had ever seen, with thousands and thousands of channels, one half of which were dedicated to cartoons and the other half dedicated to movies so new they hadn’t even come out in the theaters yet.

“Really?!” they gasped.

“Yeah,” I said, “but there’s one catch: You can’t watch it, because there’s no TV.”

This, of course, set up howls of protest and complaints of imminent death by boredom, something that completely contravened Vacation Rule #117: Never speak of boredom to women who are faced with the task of fitting an army’s worth of food into one refrigerator (especially if they are currently being hampered by husbands who insist that the top two shelves be used to store nothing but beer). Fortunately, the children were still cognizant enough to recognize the onset of an “If you’re so bored, then why don’t you…(fill in the blank with some disagreeable task)” lecture, and so quickly took themselves out of our sight.

What followed (after we had evicted nine tenths of the beer) was one of the best weekends ever. We played in the creek. We played board games (note to all would-be Scattergories lawyers: most people will not accept phlegm as “something you throw away” in the p category, no matter how many times you say “Oh, and I suppose you keep yours?”). In the mornings and evenings the kids watched nature shows: One night they saw a tarantula hawk hunt down a massive tarantula (who ever thought we’d be rooting for the spider?), and the next afternoon they watched emergency surgery on a turtle with a fish hook in its mouth. We even put on a play, Hansel & Gretel, where–by virtue of having the longest hair there–the oldest man present was appointed the role of Gretel (making our Gretel possibly the only Gretel ever to inspire witchly veganism).

We fell asleep exhausted each night and woke up eager and curious each morning. In short, it was everything a vacation should be: fun, relaxing, exciting–even educational. Returning home that Sunday evening I was feeling quite smug about the whole thing, proud of the newly TV-free children I had helped to invent. I even began to imagine how different our lives would be from now on: We would be one of those families, the ones who make peanut butter and bird seed pine cones in the winter (and actually remember to hang them up), and whose children can be called upon to recite the list of Presidents and their VP’s by heart.

But then, just as I began to really fantasize about what dress I should wear to watch a 14 year old graduate from Harvard, the soft fsst of the TV being turned on quickly put that fantasy to rest. Oh well–I can always daydream about what dress I’ll wear to watch a 25 year old receive their GED.

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My son Clyde has a new friend in his kindergarten class; in fact, they get along so well that I was quite surprised to receive a note from their teacher informing me that Clyde had been mean to this boy: He not only took his new friend’s Sacajawea dollar away from him, but he also tossed it into the grass on the edge of the playground, from where it could not be recovered. Of course I was mortified: Up until then Clyde’s kindergarten misbehavior, while definitely a daily feature, was more rambunctious than mean. Now, however, I was presented with the distressing picture of some poor little boy diconsolately searching the weeds for his long lost dollar, all because of Clyde. The more I thought about it, the worse it got: What if this dollar had had sentimental value? What if it was the last gift he had ever received from his beloved, now departed, Grandma? (Maybe his Grandma liked the casinos.) How, I wondered, would their burgeoning friendship ever survive such a rift?

Clyde, on the other hand, was unfazed.

“It’s ok,” he insisted. “I told him he could punch me in the head as many times as he wanted, and now he’s not mad anymore.”

I was a little harder to convince: Somehow it seemed doubtful to me that a few dope slaps could serve as adequate reparations for anybody, even a kindergartner. Still, the little boy didn’t seem mad when I had picked Clyde up from school that day; they were wrestling and laughing as if nothing had happened. Even so, I was determined that Clyde feel the consequences of his actions by replacing the missing Sacajawea dollar, and soon: The two boys would be attending soccer practice together that very afternoon, and I could not imagine facing his parents without at least a token gesture of restitution.

To that end, we needed another Sacajawea dollar; luckily, we didn’t have to look very far: Clyde’s sister, Clementine, has quite a stash of the chubby gold coins. To make sure he understood that he would be the one replacing the coin, though, I showed him that we were taking one of his dollars out of his Spiderman pencil case bank before going next door to buy a replacement dollar at our local arbitrager. (True to the rapacious nature of her newly chosen profession, Clementine tried to charge Clyde two dollars for one coin.)

Next came the delivery; as I nudged Clyde forward to present the hard won dollar to his little friend I hoped that it would be enough to repair their tattered friendship. I guess I’ll never really know the answer to that question, since neither the boy nor his parents had any idea what was happening.

“I told you it was ok,” said Clyde. “We made up at school.”

I realized then that he was telling me the truth.

“How many times did he punch you, anyway?” I asked, slightly fearful of the answer.

“Two times–really hard.” Still laughing about it, they went off to play soccer.

Suddenly, as I watched them happily wrestle their way down the field, I had an epiphany: Maybe we should all solve our problems the Clyde way. I know there are plenty of times when I would have gladly taken any number of punches to the head just to get out of saying “I’m sorry–I’m wrong–I messed up” one more time. Who knows: Maybe even our world leaders might want to consider it as an alternative to sanctions; at the very least it would be entertaining. Although, come to think of it, this might be a game that our leaders have been playing all along. I can think of one leader in particular who has clearly taken a few blows to the head too many–perhaps during his glory days at Yale.

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Another One Rides the Bus

By the time you read this, National Walk to School Day will have come and gone, and with it a curious phenomenon called the “walking school bus,” an event where parents drop their kids off at a predetermined location so the kids can enjoy a “parent-escorted” walk to school. Maybe I’m missing something here, but what exactly is the point of having parents get in their cars and drive their children almost all the way to school? Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for the idea of walking to school– my kids almost always either walk or ride (or, in Clyde’s case, get pulled along in a trailer Maharaja-style, allowing him to alternate between greeting his adoring subjects and exhorting me to “pedal faster!”). Even so, it seems to me that encouraging parents to drive their children to a “walking” location is a little bit like circling the gym parking lot to get the space closest to the treadmill: At the very least it’s silly; at the worst, it’s counterproductive. I rather think that if organizers were really interested in promoting car-free methods of commuting, they would be promoting something I like to call the “driving school bus.”

Here’s the plan: Instead of parents driving their children to and from school every day, their children could instead all walk to a central location in each neighborhood, where the “driving school bus” would then pick them up and take them to school. I know, I know: It’s a revolutionary concept, but, in this age of global warming, it’s one whose time has come.

I may be channeling Andy Rooney here, but: What is up with all the people driving their kids to school these days? It’s ridiculous: Go to any school at dismissal time and it’s like watching the slowest, most boring parade in town. It is as if everyone decided at once to try out for a new Olympic exhibition sport: Synchronized Driving. (See each car inch ahead in the pick-up lane; see each driver take a sip from her venti latte; see each driver answer her cell phone–“What are you doing?”–“Sitting in the car behind you; what are you doing?”)

Whenever I ask people why their kids don’t ride the bus, their answer is usually some variant of the “my kids hate the bus–it’s too stinky/smelly/crazy” theme. This always makes me think back to my own bus riding days, when, because we lived in an outlying area, all the neighborhood kids had to be at the bus stop by six o’clock in the morning in order to make first bell at 7:45. And yet, even given all that, I can’t imagine ever telling my mother I didn’t want to ride the bus without also imagining her response: A glance up from her newspaper, a flick of her cigarette (everybody’s mother smoked back then) and a wry, “So, what’s your point?”

The truth is, though, that I really didn’t mind riding the bus; even back then I could tell it made me part of something larger; part of a community that didn’t, for once, only involve the members of my own family. Sure, school itself was a type of community, but this was different: This was one of those relationships forged by fire. How else can you explain the sense of comradeship that exists between people who have spent an entire week together sharing their bus stop with one deceased Holstein cow? (Don’t ask).

The sad part is, though, that I think that kind of community feeling is what the “walking school bus” organizers are after, but, just like conversation, community is something that can’t be forced: It happens where it is most natural. And for a lot of kids, there is no place more natural than the back seat of a stinky, smelly, crazy school bus–the driving kind.

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Yellow Faced

In my son Clyde’s kindergarten class, his teachers convey the “essence” of each child’s day via the different colored faces they draw in their agendas: A green smiley face means they had a “good day”,a yellow face with a straight line for a mouth means they had a “troubled day”, and a frowning red face means they had a “bad day–and we need to talk.” Since this was the exact same system that was in place when my daughter, Clementine, went to kindergarten four years ago I wasn’t too worried about it; after all, when Clementine was in kindergarten opening her agenda and putting my initials next to the sea of green smiley faces was one of the highlights of my day; it was, for me, a time to mentally pat myself on the back and say, “Good job, Mother–clearly you’re a genius at this parenting thing.”

Then came Clyde.

The first week of kindergarten was business as usual: As smiley face after smiley face dotted the page I began to congratulate myself once more for my obviously superb parenting skills. Maybe I should teach a class, I thought to myself. Or a series of classes. I know: A seminar. Then came the first yellow face, which was quickly followed by another–and another–until finally, I turned to Clyde and, in my most un-superb, non-seminar giving voice asked him:

“Do you know how many yellow faces Clementine got when she was in kindergarten? None! And here it is, only the second week of school, and already you…” I stopped myself in mid-harangue, suddenly overcome with visions of a 42 year-old Clyde huddled in the corner of his therapist’s couch, sobbing about how he could never, ever, compete with his “perfect” older sister. I needn’t have worried: The expression on Clyde’s face was not so much the chastened despair that I’d feared, but rather pure, unadulterated disinterest. It was as if I had just spent the last five minutes speaking in tongues. In fact, the look on his face clearly said: “What are you talking about? You’re comparing me to that one over there? The one who’d rather be good than have fun? Whatever.”

My fears of long-lasting psychological damage were further assuaged the next week, when after receiving yet another yellow face his teachers reported that his reaction had been a rather exasperated, “I told my parents it would be impossible for me to get all green faces.” He repeated this sentiment again when we got home, going on to add that, anyway, it wasn’t his fault that kindergarten was filled with all sorts of impossible rules like keeping your shoes on all the time, and never, ever slugging the fellow next to you–even when he calls you a dork.

Sensing that this was going to be harder than I had anticipated, I took the easy way out: I bribed him. From now on, I told him, four green smiley faces in one week would equal a pizza night at home, while five would equal a trip to Peter Piper Pizza. At first my only fear was that Clementine, AKA Lord High Supreme Judge of Fairness and Equal Portions (symbol of power: a golden caliper for measuring cake slices) would hear about the deal and complain bitterly (and justifiably) about how she “never got nothing” for all the green faces she got in kindergarten.

But then, as the green faces started to appear with more frequency, I started to worry that I’d actually have to pay up. Finally, after Clyde brought home his fourth green smiley face in a row, and the specter of Peter Piper Pizza loomed ominously before me, I hit upon the perfect solution. As he walked into his classroom that Friday I bent down and whispered into his ear: “I think that little boy over there just called you a dork.”

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