Monthly Archives: February 2007

Climb Ev’ry Mountain

Years ago, my friend Jesse told me about a humbling experience she’d had while climbing Kilimanjaro in eastern Africa. Now, while Kilimanjaro is considered to be quite a challenging trek–difficult, but doable–it wasn’t the hike itself that she found humbling: it was the guide. It seems that somewhere around the third or fourth day, Jesse came to the ego-shattering realization that her middle-aged climbing guide intended not only to do the entire hike wearing the same ratty old bathrobe and bedroom slippers, but also while chain-smoking cheap unfiltered cigarettes along the way.

This meant that, for Jesse at least, the usual feelings of pride and accomplishment experienced after a successful summit bid were instead replaced for her by a sort of nonspecific disgruntled chagrin; after all, it’s hard to really appreciate a major life victory when you’ve only gotten there by following in the footsteps of a man who could easily have been Archie Bunker’s Tanzanian twin.

Now, while I can’t quite match that story, I do think I can finally appreciate what Jesse must have been feeling on that trek; even though I don’t have a bathrobe-wearing mountain guide, I do have something equally obnoxious: my son, Clyde.

It all started on our last trip down to the Valley, when, perhaps due to an excess of oxygen in my blood, I decided that the time was right to take the entire family on a little hike. After consulting several maps and guidebooks I decided that, because of its unique geographical profile (in other words, it was closest to our hotel), Camelback Mountain would be the hike for us. Besides, our guidebook (printed, I later noticed, in Great Britain) described this particular hike as “easy.”

Now, I don’t know if “easy” is British slang for “almost completely vertical,” or if they’re still upset about the War of 1812, but what I do know is that, had I been given proper advance warning as to how difficult this hike would actually turn out to be, I would have never started my five-year old up the trail. And, on another note, had I known what a vastly superior climber he was to me, I certainly would have never let him finish it.

As I huffed and puffed my way straight up the side of the mountain, I didn’t really mind the Camelback regulars who sprinted past me with a cheery “lovely day, isn’t it?”; after all, these were people who looked like they could crack open Brazil nuts with their butt cheeks. And I also didn’t mind being passed up by grey-haired firemen; they hiked this mountain all the time for rescue training, and besides, at least they were sweating. What I did mind, though, was being handily passed by a five-year-old who spent the whole trip heartily singing.

It wasn’t fair: even though his legs are half as long as mine, and even though his lungs and heart are half as big, Clyde casually strolled up the near vertical face, all the while singing a little ditty he made up about how “some people go up, some people do down, and that’s how you share the moun-tain.” There wasn’t a drop of sweat on his dusky cheeks, or a single little blond hair out of place. If he had known how, I’m sure he would have been whistling.

Watching him gambol merrily up the mountainside, it was then that I remembered my friend Jesse’s trip, and suddenly I understood the disgruntled chagrin she had felt all those years before on Kilimanjaro. The only solace I could take was that, at least in my case, it was all to be expected–it is the natural order, after all, for the old to be succeeded by the young. Still, it is awfully galling to be shown up by a five-year-old–especially one who is singing. Oh well–at least he wasn’t smoking.

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Halloween I

I’ve always loved the Greg Brown song “One More Goodnight Kiss,” especially the line where he sings, “The scariest thing I’ve seen, is the death of Halloween/No treats for the children, just all these grown-up tricks.” And yet, even though I love the sentiment behind that line, I always thought that the line itself was a little premature (in other words: the reports of Halloween’s death were greatly exaggerated). After all, my kids still went trick-or-treating every year–even on those nights when Halloween fell on a school night, or (Heaven forbid) a Sunday. In fact, Halloween is one of those holidays we plan our vacations around: we would no more miss Halloween and the chance to trick-or-treat our neighbors than we would miss the 4th of July parade and the chance to mock the Republican candidates. (Come on–his name was Korn; did he really expect to march through a town like Flagstaff unscathed?)

Recently, however, in the middle of planning an upcoming October trip, I realized that this might take us out of town for Halloween this year–and I hardly turned a hair. The fact is, in all the ways that really matter, Halloween is dead. Oh, it’s not dead for the girls who want an excuse to wear lingerie in public and get smashed (even though I’m sure I speak for every man in America when I say, “Honey, you don’t need an excuse”), and it’s not dead for that guy who likes to go to Halloween parties in his street clothes and tell everyone, “This is my costume.” (And, judging from the number of bobbing orange blobs on the lawns of some of the nicer neighborhoods, it’s especially not dead for the people who manufacture $200 inflatable lawn ornaments.) But for the kid who wants to put on one of his dad’s old shirts for the “instant hobo” look, or the one who cuts eyeholes in his mom’s 800 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets for the ghost of Martha Stewart look (and then uses the pillowcase for a haul bag), Halloween may as well be dead.

We only got five trick-or-treaters this year. Five. It was a beautiful night, our yard was done up in spooky magnificence (no giant inflatable pumpkin, though), our “come hither” porch light was on, and all we got was five lousy trick-or-treaters. It’s not as if we live out in the boonies somewhere–we live downtown, the place where people who do live in the boonies take their children trick-or-treating. The saddest part is that this was practically a good year: some of my neighbors have even started giving out full-sized candy bars, both because it’s just as easy when the numbers are that small, and also to potentially increase their share of next year’s return customers. Heck, at five it’d probably be just as cheap to give out cartons of cigarettes (thereby at least assuring myself a return clientele up through the college years), but that’s not really the demographic I’m trying to catch. I want the eight to twelve year olds who are totally psyched to be out trick-or-treating on their own for the first time, the ones who are absolutely determined to stay out until their pillowcases are dragging the sidewalk, no matter what.

Unfortunately, that’s a market niche I’ll probably never get to see again, because those kids are the ones who are at all the “Harvest Festivals” all over the city. (Harvest Festivals, of course, being the new, “safer” alternatives to trick-or-treating. What’s next? “Spring Festivals” to protect kids from the dangers of eating too many Peeps™ at Easter time?)

But then, as people are always so quick to point out to me whenever I start to fuss, “things are different these days,” and, “maybe you were just lucky when you were a kid.” Maybe I was. After all, I got to go trick-or-treating.

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Queen Bees

My daughter, Clementine, is now in the fourth grade. This is significant because, despite the fact that when you get to be my age everyone can’t wait to tell you that “40 is the new 30,” in the preteen world things are reversed, and “10 is the new 12.” What this means is that instead of being able to postpone all of those dreaded mother/daughter “big talks” for a few more years (by which time I was hoping they would be available as a podcast that she could download and listen to at her leisure), I now have to start thinking about delivering them immediately.

Fortunately, my plan for the big “facts of life” talk has been in place for years now: hand her a new copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves and tell her that if she has any questions she should feel free to text me. Unfortunately, beyond that I’ve got zip. For instance, for the really big talk, the one where I explain to her that–despite all of our shouts of “sisterhood” to the contrary–despite all of the marches we may march in together, all of the bras we may burn in tandem, and all of the “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” buttons we may exchange, sometimes a girl’s worst enemy can start out by being her best friend. Call them “queen bees” or just call them “the in crowd,” but some girls just seem born to bully.

Forget about sex–this will be the hard talk: after all, everyone eventually recovers from the embarrassment of their first sexual encounter; no one ever quite gets over the first time they were bullied by the girls who used to be their friends. The sheer weight of the emotional baggage involved makes this a hard subject to approach rationally; even thinking about it happening to your own daughter can bring out a sort of primal rage, the kind where your field of vision actually goes red around the corners and you know that if called upon you could lift up an entire car, let alone eviscerate with your bare hands the little girl who has sent your daughter home in tears.

A few years ago I read an essay in Brain, Child magazine by a woman who confessed to taking aside the girl who had been bullying her daughter about her clothes and informing her that her own shoes were “really, really ugly.” (Ah, yes: age and treachery will beat youth and innocence every time.)

Even though I thoroughly enjoyed this story for its “oh, snap” moment, I also recognized (as did the author) the potential difficulties involved in permanently functioning as a sort of verbal bodyguard. For one thing, some of those little girls are really mean–it probably wouldn’t help matters if I ended up being the one to burst into tears. For another, I’m just not that interested in going back to the 4th grade (I already know who won the Civil War). That only leaves my husband’s plan, the one where he suggested that at the first sign of bullying he would simply go find the girl’s dad and beat him up.

Of course, there’s also the possibility that, despite “10 being the new 12,” I’m still jumping the gun, and I should hang back and wait to see how Clementine handles these things on her own. After all, this is the same girl who, in kindergarten, after hearing my advice on how to deal with a boy who was teasing her about her short hair (“tease the little four-eyed brat back”) responded with, “You know Mom, I’m not like you; I like people.”

Just in case though, I think I’ll get my husband a punching bag to practice on; I can always pick it up when I’m out ordering my new copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves.

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Gun Club

As I may have mentioned before, my son Clyde wanted to be a cowboy for Halloween last year. Let me emphasize again that he wanted to be a cowboy. It was his choice. It wasn’t because I spent the month of October in such a drunken haze that I barely sobered up long enough on the night of the 31st to realize it was Halloween, tie a bandana around his neck, draw a handle-bar mustache on his face with an eyebrow pencil, and call it good. He wanted to be a cowboy. I feel that it is necessary to make this clear because everyone knows that the cowboy costume is one of those classic last minute Halloween costumes, the kind that are usually put together by drunken (or, if we’re being PC, “forgetful”) parents. Come to think of it, all of the “bandana and eyebrow pencil” themed Halloween costumes belong in this category. The Gypsy–bandana on head, skinny eyebrow pencil mustache on face; the Pirate–again, bandana on head, but this time use the eyebrow pencil to black out one tooth (apparently, the only difference between a gypsy and a pirate is their dental plan); and, of course, the Hobo–bandana on a stick, five o’clock shadow on face.

But, as I mentioned before, inebriation on my part wasn’t the rationale for Clyde’s costume: he really wanted to be a cowboy. And yes, while he may have had the standard issue bandana around his neck and handlebar mustache on his face, he also had the nonstandard issue cowboy boots, cowboy hat, cowboy rope, and, most importantly of all (to Clyde at least), cowboy gun. This despite my suspicion that the percentage of cowboys in the Old West who actually carried “sidearms” is about the same as the percentage of white suburban “gangsta rappers” who actually carry “Glock 9″’s.

However, as far as Clyde was concerned, when it came to “real” cowboy costumes a gun was de rigueur–to be without one would be like dressing up as Lindsay Lohan and forgetting the “Property of Betty Ford Clinic” t-shirt: it just wasn’t done. And so, despite my personal misgivings about the authenticity of “cowboy guns,” I acquiesced, and set out in search of a “real fake cowboy gun.” Three hours later I was ready to admit defeat: who knew that toy “cowboy guns” were so hard to find? Sure, there were plenty of regular toy guns to choose from–water guns, laser guns, disc-shooting guns, nerf-launching guns– but everywhere I looked there was not a single real-looking “cowboy gun” to be found. I was starting to think that unless either Clyde changed his costume to “cowboy from outer space” or I agreed to a three day waiting period, Clyde was out of luck.

Fortunately, before it came to that I finally found him a “real cowboy gun” in the far recesses of the local drugstore: a pearl-handled chrome-plated six-shooter no less, one that not only looked real, but, thanks to the fact that it was also a cap gun, sounded and smelled real as well. The only thing that stopped it from looking completely genuine was a bulbous piece of bright orange plastic on the tip of its barrel; when I suggested to my husband that we could remove this, however–to give it a more realistic look–he patiently explained to me that the reason for the orange tip was so that it wouldn’t look real, and so that Clyde wouldn’t get shot when he pointed it at some patrol car on Halloween night. He then added that getting Clyde a cap gun was possibly the dumbest thing I’d done since the previous Halloween, when I’d bought him a toy sword and then wondered why all of the neighborhood kids kept running out of our yard bleeding.

Some people. This year I think will stay drunk all October.

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