Monthly Archives: November 2006

Put It Away

I have a new theme song: ever since I realized that my daily mantra, “Put It Away Now,” bears an uncanny resemblance to The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ song “Give It Away Now,” The Peppers have been stuck in my head. This is actually quite an improvement over my old theme song; before, whenever I walked through the sea of discarded shoes, coats, gloves, school books, back packs, art projects, library books, candy wrappers, milk jugs, cereal boxes, cracker crumbs, roller skates, and buckets of dirt hauled in from the garden that passes for a living room in my house, I would hear the theme to Sanford and Son; hearing Flea’s funky bass beat and the words, “Put it away, put it away, put it away, put it away now” is a much nicer, not to mention hipper, way to live. And, while having your own theme song might sound like the sort of thing that would drive a person crazy, when compared to the other mental accompaniment choices–like sputtering, ineffectual screams of frustration (imagine how Sergeant Schultz would sound as one of the castrati)–it is actually quite refreshing.

In fact, I am so happy with my new theme song (despite having to mumble the last few incomprehensible words of the chorus), that I felt almost buoyant as I shoveled my way to the front door this morning amidst the frantic cries of “Where is my shoe/homework/backpack/cereal bowl–oops, never mind…” In fact, armed with my new theme song, my response to this morning’s chaos could have been described as one of detached scientific curiosity, almost as if I was studying a family of primates (which, in a way, I was). Interesting, I thought, note how the young of the species are continually surprised by the connection between returning things to their original locations, and being able to find those things again. See how the older one fell over the “shoe objects” at least three times as they lay on the kitchen floor the night before, and yet is still unable to locate them in the morning. Fascinating. What can I say? Having a good theme song can make all the difference.

Of course, even the best theme song has its limits, or worse, can be corrupted by another, not so smile-inducing tune. That’s what happened to me later, as I flung what seemed to be the week’s 751st shoe back into the shoe bucket. That’s when I realized that it’s not just that my children don’t believe things need to be put away–it’s that they don’t believe things need to be put away by them.

I paused in mid-throw: such an inflated sense of entitlement seemed hauntingly familiar. And then I remembered the unauthorized biography of Prince Charles that had come out a few years earlier, written by his erstwhile valet. While this book contained many pieces of bizarre royalty trivia, the bizarrest bit by far had been the revelation that Charles had never once in his life put his own toothpaste onto his toothbrush: there had always been some lackey (er, valet) there to do it for him. (On an unrelated note, perhaps this was the reason why he and Diana eventually divorced: deprived of the chance to fight about trivial stuff like who left the cap off of the toothpaste, and whether it’s better to squeeze from the middle or the end, they were forced to argue about stuff that really mattered–like whether Camilla more closely resembled a horse or a mule.)

Suddenly it all made sense: obviously my children were royals who had the misfortune to be born into peasant stock. No sooner had I realized this then my theme song abruptly and unfortunately changed from “Put it Away Now” to “God Save the Queen.” I guess it could have been worse; at least I got the Sex Pistol’s version.

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Just Like Me

For Halloween this year, my son Clyde decided that he was going to be a cowboy; while we could make up most of his costume by tweaking the items he already had in his (very large) dress-up box, there was one piece of equipment upon which he would accept no substitutions: the gun. (I tried to talk him into the Kwai Chang Caine Cowboy model, but to no avail: he wanted to be a “real” cowboy that “really” killed things with a “real” six-shooter). And so to the toy store we went in search of the perfect gun.

Although this was not the first toy gun he ever owned, (How could it be? In the hands of a five-year-old boy everything from half-eaten sandwiches to bent over Barbie dolls becomes a gun), it was certainly the most realistic-looking model he ever possessed; in fact, if it wasn’t for the fact that this gun was tiny, made of plastic, had a green trigger and an orange muzzle, it would have looked downright real. Which is probably why it gave Clyde such a burst of newfound confidence.

“Put your shoes away,” I told him when we got home from the toy store.

“No,” he replied defiantly. “I don’t have to put my shoes away anymore; I’ve got a gun.”

One minute later I had wrestled the gun away from him and threatened to “bust a cap up in his punk ass if he didn’t stop playing the fool and put his shoes away this instant.” Then I sat down on the couch, sighted along the length of the little plastic barrel at a Cops rerun playing on TV, and said to myself, “Sheesh–I wonder where they get this stuff from, anyway?”

I don’t know why it always catches me off guard when my children turn out to be just like me; after all, evolutionarily speaking, isn’t passing on your genes (including your personality traits and habits) the whole point of having children? What I don’t understand, though, is why, out of all my various and diverse strands of DNA, the only ones my children ever seem to acquire are the “obnoxious trait” bearing ones. (I can hear my husband now: “Oh? Do you have any other kind?”)

Of course, inheriting the “good ones” is no guarantee of good results, either: even the best trait can be used for evil. What’s worse is that it can be used for evil against it creator.

Take, for example, the case of my daughter, Clementine. Clementine has inherited from me both a certain cynicism about “Authority” and a strong dislike for ever backing down from a fight she believes in. On the one hand, these would seem like good things, things that will provide her with the skills necessary for dealing with all the difficult people that can inhabit this cold, cruel world. Or, it could just be turning her into the kind of person who still shops at Hot Topic at the age of forty-five; the jury’s still, because, so far, (just like with Clyde and his new gun), the only Authority she ever questions is mine, and the only fights she won’t back down from are the ones with me.

Some may claim that this is the natural order, but if you ask me this is just not right: Darwin himself would be shocked at seeing an offspring use its own genetic inheritance as a weapon against the genetic provider. Case in point: did the above-mentioned Kwai Chang ever use his newly learned skills to attack Master Kan? Sure, he did “snatch the pebble from his hand”–but it’s not like he then went on to flick that same pebble back into his face. Then again, who knows what he would have done if, instead of a pebble, what he had snatched had been a shiny, new, plastic gun.

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It shouldn’t have come as any surprise to me that, at age five, Clyde is not big on the whole concept of civil disobedience; uncivil disobedience, sure–that he can’t get enough of–but the more refined, polite version of CD (at least as it is practiced outside of World Bank meetings), holds no interest for him whatsoever. Not that I can really blame him: after all, the kindergarten psyche runs more towards who throwed up than Henry David Thoreau. But still, even knowing that Walden will not appear on Clyde’s required reading list, I was a bit surprised when he refused to join me in ignoring the Pledge of Allegiance.

Let me start at the beginning: a few weeks ago I was late bringing Clyde to school. This meant two things: 1) As someone who is always early to the point of compulsion, I was cranky beyond belief at the thought of being late, and 2) We arrived at school just as they were starting the Pledge. At Clyde’s school, whenever the Pledge is announced everyone is supposed to stop what they are doing, stand, and recite (hopefully those who are in the bathrooms–at least those who are in the bathrooms not containing urinals–are excused from at least the standing portion of this rule).

This is apparently a well known fact: as soon as that day’s Pledge was announced every man, woman and child rushing through the hallways came to a complete stop, placed their hands over their hearts, and–like travelers who are not quite sure which way they should turn to face Mecca–focused their eyes on imaginary flags waving proudly somewhere in the distance and began to recite. As I said, judging from the transformation that occurred in the hallways, everyone knew that this was what they were supposed to do.

Obviously Clyde knew this, too, which would explain why, as soon as the Pledge was announced he dropped like an anchor at the end of my arm and refused to go one step further. I gave up on my desperate attempts to tow him along anyway after I noticed his heels were putting furrows in the carpeting: this boy was not moving. I couldn’t believe it: there, right before my very eyes, was my child–the child of my own loins–standing ramrod stiff, hand over his heart, and reciting a piece of fluff that had first come into vogue back when just about the only other way you could establish your patriotism was by not being German. (The same piece of jingoistic nonsense, I might add, that my own refusal to recite back in high school had left me cooling my heels in the principal’s office.) My liberal heart flopped over and lay still; suddenly I knew how Dick Cheney felt when his daughter came out as a lesbian. I was horrified: I wanted to make the sign of the cross (or whatever it is we atheists do); I wanted to shield my eyes with a copy of Mother Jones. I wanted to stop the painful realization that, this, too, was all my fault.

After all: hadn’t we sent our kids to public schools in the first place so that they could learn about diversity and how to follow the rules? How was I to know that diversity would mean people different than me, and that the rules would be ones I didn’t like?

Luckily, as I pondered the implications of all this, the next Pledge–the school Pledge–came on, and I could, with clear conscience, nod approvingly while Clyde pledged “to be a kid with character.” Now that’s a pledge I can get behind: if only his school would replace that other Pledge with a double recitation of the school one. In fact, it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea for the rest of the country to do the same. I’m sure Thoreau would approve.

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No Fair

“No fair that our brains get to tell us what to do,” says Clyde from the back seat. I don’t know how to respond to this: does it mean that the “little voices” inside of Clyde’s head are telling him what to do again, or that, just like those who have been assimilated into the Borg or other fraternities, Clyde now regards the presence of his brain as one more impediment to a good time? Fortunately, I am saved from having to decide by a car passing us in the next lane; a dog in the back seat is enough to change the focus of Clyde’s fairness radar from “evil brain overlords” to “lucky canines”: “No fair that dogs get to hang their heads out of the window.”

I stifle the urge to sigh. We are on our way to buy school supplies, and already I am wondering why I didn’t just do the whole thing online, since all evidence so far points to yet another trip punctuated by Clyde’s petulant complaints about the inequitable way I will be dividing the purchases between him and his older sister, Clementine. I already know that it will not help to point out to him that this is not an example of favoritism; I am just following the class lists their teachers gave me, and the reason that Clementine is getting a ruler (and not him) is because his kindergarten list (as opposed to her 4th grade list) does not specify one. I also know that it will be equally pointless to try and explain to him that this discrepancy is not proof of some global anti-Clyde, anti-kindergarten conspiracy, but rather, in all likelihood, a liability issue ( in kindergartner language, the word for “ruler” is very close to the word for “short little whupping stick”).

At least with issues like rulers and dogs I can attempt to reason with Clyde: what do you do with a statement like “It’s no fair that Clementine got to be born first?”

What I want to know is: where did he get the idea that life was supposed to be fair, anyway? After all: hasn’t he spent his entire life watching his father root for the Arizona Cardinals? If I could, I’d blame it on the fact that he now attends public school (don’t they natter on about fairness or something in the Pledge of Allegiance?), but, given the current status of an average Arizona teacher’s salary, I rather doubt there is much talk of “fairness” in his classroom. And besides, his obsession with equal treatment began long before he ever started school.

The fact is that, as far as Clyde is concerned, nothing is fair: not the chair he has to sit in at dinnertime (Clementine’s is better), not the clothes he has to wear in the morning (cats get to be naked), and not the color of the toothbrush he has to use at night (he wanted blue). It’s gotten to the point that I hardly even notice anymore that all of his sentences start with nofairthat; my ears edit it out the same way they edit out the likes, ums and you knows from teenspeak.

Actually, it’s teenspeak and its temporary nature ( the way it–mostly–disappears with age) that gives me the most hope for a future with no nofairthats. If not, then at least I hope he learns to internalize it like the rest of us; pushing all the shock and anger at the unfairness life deals us into those hard, tight little balls of resentment that simmer in the pits of our stomachs, waiting only for the spark of presidential elections and high school reunions to fire up again. Unless, of course, he turns out to be a Cardinals fan like his Dad–then he gets to live with that feeling for four months out of every year.

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Even before I became a mother, I knew that the job would entail the wearing of many different hats (most of them the flimsy paper variety usually associated with the service industry). What I didn’t know, however, was that I would also have to wear a wig–specifically, the long, flowing magisterial wig most often associated with English courtrooms and Pink Floyd movies. What I failed to realize was that, with the arrival of children, objectivity was no longer an option: You are called upon to render a judgement–to take sides–every day for the rest of your life. (Although I do find it odd that somehow the same person who can’t be trusted to buy the right kind of breakfast cereal can suddenly be trusted to hand down decisions regarding who called “Shotgun!” first.)

It doesn’t matter how peace-loving you were in your former, child free life–once you have children you can forget about the whole “judge not lest ye be judged” schtick . And, thanks to the advent of the playdate, this is even true for the parents of an only child. Welcome to the life of Solomon (minus the concubines): from now on, each day consists of a million urgent calls to separate the guilty from the innocent, process claims for immediate restitution, and dispense justice of the coldest, hardest sort (preferably meted out by large, shirtless individuals wearing black hoods and holding axes). Even worse, unlike Solomon–who had the luxury of having his judgements immediately transmuted into law–your judgements will run the risk of being overruled by an appellate court ( the time my husband vetoed my very Solomon-like decision to settle a squabble over the clicker by splitting it in half comes to mind).

The hardest part, though, is that so often what we are called upon to do is not so much adjudicate, but punish. The aggrieved don’t want closure–they want revenge. These are no “Truth and Reconciliation Hearings”–they are the “Salem Witch Trials.”

Sometimes in the midst of all this bloodlust I think of the story my husband once told me about being called to appear in court during his younger years in Virginia. It seems that he had had an unfortunate vehicular altercation with a mailbox. Actually, with several different mailboxes. In a row. All in the same night. (He probably would have gotten away with it if it hadn’t have been for the fact that one of the mailboxes, reaching up like an accusing hand from beyond the grave, got tangled up in the back bumper of his car and tore off his license plate.)

When the mailbox owner was called in to court to testify as to the nature and extent of the damages to his property, he replied that, actually, it wasn’t the mailbox that had been damaged at all–it was the paper box, which, as far as he knew, the newspaper gave out for free–but all he had to do in any case was to prop the whole thing back up again and it was “good as new.” And that was the end of that.

Looking at Clementine and Clyde (or, as I like to think of them, defendant and plaintiff) I sometimes wonder whether they will ever reach the forbearing state as that Virginia homeowner, or if they will become the type of people who argue vociferously on The People’s Court for “punitive damages due to emotional distress caused by the wanton abuse of their paper box.” I suppose only time will tell, although, for now, I must admit that it sometimes comes in handy to have a pair of justice-seeking informants on hand, especially when it comes to finding out important information like who opened up the new box of popsicles, took one out and then left the rest on the counter to melt. Sometimes there is no such thing as a victimless crime.

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Arch Nemesis

When we decided that we wanted to have a second child, we knew that–since she had been an only child for over four years–it would be quite an adjustment for Clementine to make. Still, I held out hope that all her years of “only-ness” would have at least given her an appreciation for all of the advantages that come with finally having another kid voice in the house; if nothing else she would have another voice of “reason” when it came time to decide things such as where to go on vacation (Disneyland, always), where to stop for dinner (McDonald’s–again, always), and what to watch on TV (all ‘toons, all the time). In my naivete, I even imagined a time in the future when the two of them would sit down together as friends, perhaps with Clyde tucked snugly into the crook of Clementine’s arm as Clementine lovingly read him a bedtime story.

Of course, the years of assault and battery that followed (on both sides) quickly put an end to that fantasy–or, at least, I thought they had, until the other night when it seemed that my vision had finally come true: There they were–together, on the couch–and, just like in my fantasy, Clementine had one hand around a book and the other around Clyde. Unfortunately, upon closer inspection it was revealed that Clementine’s arm was only around Clyde’s neck so that she could hold him steady long enough to pummel him with the book. It was then that I realized that, while what we had been hoping to give Clementine was a lifelong friend, what we had actually ended up giving her was something much more valuable: a lifelong nemesis.

What could possibly be more enriching than having your very own archenemy? After all, where would Superman be without Lex Luther? Sherlock Holmes without Professor Moriarty? Brooke Shields without Tom Cruise? The centuries have proven that there is just something about having an archenemy that inspires people to greatness (or at least elevates them up from the realm of infomercials); this is why, in the interests of giving my children the very best possible shot at world domination, I have now decided to start playing favorites.

I know, I know: this goes against every bit of advice given out by all contemporary parenting books, but what those books fail to take into account is that I’m not trying to create the perfect child here, but rather the perfect superhuman. Just thinking about the bennies of having my very own evil overlord in the family is enough to make my head spin: Forget about the cars, jewelry, and vacations–I could get to rule over my own continent.

And the best part is that to get there I won’t have to change my parenting style one bit; after all, nothing I’ve done in the past five years has done a thing to disabuse my children of the notion that our house operates under a continual pall of inequality. (I figured out a long time ago that even if I could somehow manage to suck up every single molecule in the world into a giant vacuum cleaner and painstakingly divide them out again into equal piles, they would still complain about the other receiving preferential treatment. “Her molecules are bigger than mine.”) The way I see it, I’ll just continue on as before, knowing that whatever involuntary body tics I throw in one or the other’s direction will be more than enough to keep the stew of resentments simmering; with any luck by the time I’m sixty the fierce pressure cooker of competition will have turned one of my children into an arch villain bent on world domination–all I’ll have to do is sit back and await my continent. All I can say is that I’d better get a bigger one than my husband.

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