Monthly Archives: April 2007

Future Prez

Over the years, there have been many occasions when I have noticed that my children seem to be headed inexorably down the road to law school (this, of course, begs the question: “If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, then what is the road to law school paved with?” One answer: “White Ford Broncos and empty cans of Red Bull”). This tendency of theirs towards “lawyerosity” is perhaps at its most obvious when it comes to their adept use of what they see as “loopholes” in the parental justice system. An example of this would be when they argue that they are not breaking the rule against having a bowl of cereal right before dinner because they are, in fact, eating it right out of the box.

Then there is also their use of the “if there is no law against it, it must be ok” defense. This usually manifests itself in the use of such closing arguments as “But you never said we weren’t allowed to tap dance naked on top of the TV while juggling a pair of cats!”. (It is at times such as these that I understand why cities pass arcane laws like the one about it being illegal to walk an alligator down the boardwalk after noon on a Sunday. Surely any parent that has had to institute such rules as “there are to be no more than 2 people and/or animals–including aquatic ones–in the bathtub at any one time” can envision the exigent circumstances that could lead to an otherwise sane city council passing a law against whistling “The William Tell Overture” while eating a bowl of spaghetti.)

Recently, though, due to a spate of excuses that have been downright Clintonian in their disingenuousness (“You told me not to hit my brother, and I wasn’t; I was kicking him.”) I have come to realize that my children are not just headed down the subpoena-slicked road to law school, but are in fact headed somewhere even less wholesome than that: they are headed into politics. (Question: “What is the road to politics paved with? Answer: “Nothing yet–it’s a Halliburton contract.”)

It was the upcoming presidential election that first alerted me to this. (OK, I’ll admit that I’m using the word “upcoming” rather loosely here. Let’s just say the presidential election is “upcoming” in the same sense that any foreseeable ending to the Anna Nicole Smith saga is “upcoming”). The thing about the presidential election is that nobody just announces their run: first there is the establishment of an exploratory committee, then there is the announcement of the intent to announce, followed thereafter by the announcement of the actual time of the announcement itself, all of which is followed finally, and somewhat anticlimactically, by the actual announcement. (As a sort of denouement, this is usually followed sometime later by the announcement that the candidate, due to lack of support, has decided to withdraw from the race.)

This is exactly the same series of events that emerges whenever my children are asked to clean their rooms. First there is the “exploratory committee.” This is what is happening inside their heads directly after they are asked to perform the chore, and involves vital, pressing questions like, “If I just pretend I didn’t hear her, will she go away?” Next comes the announcement of intent to announce (“I’m going to do it! Just give me 5 more minutes!”) followed by the announcement itself (“OK! I’m doing it! Sheesh!”), and then, just like in the real presidential race, the withdrawal due to lack of support ( “I can’t do it; it’s too hard.”)

And then, of course, there is the final, and most damning similarity: if you decide to watch either event all the way through to the end, then you’re most certainly going to be wading through an awful lot of crap.

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Death in the AM

As anyone who has ever read this column with even semi-regularity can tell you, I have a problem with children’s movies. I don’t like their insipid little story lines, their precociously cynical pre-adolescents, or their parents who exist merely as the straight men for the sarcastic/hostile comments directed at them by their preternaturally brilliant kids. In short, I hate them. Imagine, then, my delight upon discovering that our very own homegrown film festival–Mountain Film Festival–would be offering a “family program” of child-friendly short films. Finally, I thought: children’s movies that would be worthy of being called “films.”

For the most part, I was right: even though some of the films were better than others, none of them could be called insipid. (Except maybe the Swiss movie that was touted as being “James Bond meets Warren Miller.” More like “James Bond Meets Warren Miller…in the Old Folks’ Home”: despite some action shots reminiscent of The A-Team in its heyday, this snoozer never quite made it past 2 on the Excite-O-Meter.)

But before that there was an entertaining short about a couple of pieces of produce that were trying to escape from the crisper of an old refrigerator. Unfortunately, they are brutally attacked by various household appliances, until finally, only the lettuce leaf makes it outside to the freedom of the woods beyond (all it needed was some whistling and it could have been The Grape Escape.)

Then came a film about a day in the life of an Iraqi boy. At first, this seemed like a peaceful little movie, with charming scenes of young Iraqis enjoying a snowy day. Since the boys were near my son Clyde’s age (five), I was happy when Clyde asked me to read him the subtitles–after all, this was what I was here for: to see a child of mine attentively watching a film that involved neither ninja turtles or talking cows. With a fair bit of pride, therefore, in the discerning nature of my own little Renaissance boy, I confidently started whispering into his ear the words that appeared on the screen.

Now, after years of reading Good Night, Moon ad infinitum, I must admit that I am somewhat of a master at reading out loud without paying too much attention to what I am saying. And so it was that we were well into the story of how the boy lost his father before I started to wonder if maybe I should’ve been editing all along. It wasn’t too bad when the mother was explaining how there had been no work in the village and the boy’s father had gone looking for something to sell. But then she started to elaborate on how he had found a “cannonball,” and before I knew it I was whispering things in Clyde’s ear like: “there weren’t enough pieces left to wash…we put the pieces in a bag…and buried the bag…over there.”

After the movies were over I began to get a little worried: how would Clyde handle the information that somebody’s daddy could be found in so many pieces he needed to be buried in a bag? (As for the Swiss “action” flick, the only worries I had were that he might grow up to think you can shoot ten thousand rounds at someone running six feet ahead of you in a tunnel and still not hit them).

Later, when Clyde looked over at me with concern and started to ask me a question, I thought to myself: Here it comes. War. Life. Death. Everything. As it turned out, I was only right about the last part. “Mom?” he said. “Is the orange going to be ok?””

Skiing assassins, exploding fathers–thankfully, all Clyde really still cared about was the plucky produce. “Don’t worry,” I said, grateful for a lie I could live with. “It was just a movie.”

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H.L. Mencken once famously defined puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Add to that the words, “and making a mess” however, and what you have instead is the definition of a parent. Or, at least you have the definition of a parent like me.

I’m not sure when it happened–maybe around the time Clementine starting walking–but at some point the “sweet sound of children at play” began to take on menacing undertones for me. For most people, I’m sure, passing a house in the summertime and hearing screaming laughter coming from the back yard only brings back reminisces about the summers of their youth–the tire swings they swung from, the swimming holes they splashed in, the dilapidated forts they painstakingly pieced together. As for myself, however, all I can hear are the warning signs that someone is having fun; in other words, that a mess is being made.

Maybe the hose is being used to create a mud puddle that will be rolled in, tromped through, and eventually relocated to every surface under six feet in my kitchen. Maybe a pair of cats are being harnessed–one to a Malibu Barbie convertible, the other to a RC Hummer–in preparations for a chariot race that will leave a swathe of misery and destruction that’ll make Sherman’s march to the sea look like a walk in the park. Or maybe every single one of my gardening tools is being carefully taken out of my gardening shed, lined up from smallest to largest, methodically inventoried by color and size, and then left to rust under the last spring snow.

I know, I know: these are all very creative, very playful schemes, and I should be happy that my kids are using their imaginations out in the yard as opposed to slowly having their brains sucked out through their eyes in front of the TV. But still, the devil parent on my other shoulder can’t help but whispering that “you never have to get out the shop vac when they sit on the couch watching Dora.”

At least with the TV, the worst of the messes usually involve nothing more toxic than congealed yogurt, ground up Cheetos, and strawberry milk–oftentimes appearing all together somewhere under the couch cushions. Add the Great Outdoors to the mix, however–add in a 50 lb. bag of peat moss, a lipping full rain barrel, and 200 feet of extension cord–and you soon have a mess worthy of FEMA. (Every time my kids are left to their own devices in the back yard
I’m a little surprised it doesn’t all end in the governor flying over in a helicopter).

And the worse part is that it is always accompanied by peals of laughter. Before I had kids, the sound of children laughing made me smile; now it just makes me alert, like someone working in a nuclear plant who has just seen their radiation badge jump from green to yellow. (As with radiation, children’s laughter has varying levels of danger. A light chuckle means a mess that can still be contained by paper towels; a deeper chortle mean that renting a steam cleaner is imminent; and one of those high-pitched screaming giggles–the kind that sound like a race horse just received a surprise visit from the proctologist–means that perhaps you should consider listing your house on the market–“as is,” of course.)

This is why it is so vitally important for your children to cultivate friendships with other yards–I mean children–in the neighborhood. Only through the filtering lens of distance can you once again appreciate the magical sound of children’s laughter–especially when it is counterpointed so nicely by the enraged bellow of some other parent discovering a hose snaking in the kitchen window, up the stairs, and under the bed–all in an attempt to create the world’s first hideaway waterbed couch.

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At my house, one of the many things we fight about is money. I realize, of course, that the same thing could be said about almost any couple, but with us there’s a slight difference: the fighting couple in question consists not of me and my husband, but rather of my daughter, Clementine, and myself. (Don’t get me wrong: my husband and I would love to fight about money; unfortunately, we never seem to have enough of it to make the effort worthwhile.) When it comes to Clementine and myself, however, shortness of funds has never been a barrier to conflict: no matter how little of it there is, I like to watch it come in; she likes to watch it go out. In other words: I’m a miser; she’s a spendthrift.

I’ll be the first to admit that she may have a point: my penny-pinching ways are somewhat legendary both in and out of our family. My husband once even complained that there was not one thing he could buy me that I would enjoy more than knowing that the money had never left the bank. Of course, he was inspired to make that comment by my less-than-enthusiastic reception to his Christmas present that year– a calendar. ( “A calendar? You bought me a calendar in December? But–if you wait until March, they’re practically free!”). (It probably didn’t help that two hours later I was still clutching my new calendar and repeatedly muttering the words, “March… practically free…”).

When it comes to my daughter, Clementine, however (or, as I like to call her, The Profligate Daughter), my Scrooge bona fides aren’t even needed to qualify for miser status–next to her, everyone would be considered a miser. Clementine doesn’t just like to spend money–she burns to spend it. Each penny that remains in her possession is like a heavy weight, oppressing her very soul. She reminds me of those winning contestants on the old version of Wheel of Fortune, where after each round the contestant had to spend their prize money on a revolving dais of crap before they could leave. (If they didn’t, any remaining funds would be put into a gift certificate for some place like “Zabu’s House of Fine Furnishing,” where you just know that the entire showroom floor is filled with objects like life-size ceramic cheetahs and “authentic replicas” of ancient Mayan death masks.) Before the show’s producers wisely changed it so that people could actually take the money they won home with them, the threat of Zabu would cause people to desperately try and spend their winnings on the “prizes” displayed on stage, the obvious theory being that it was better to deal with the devil you know (your very own jukebox!) than the devil you don’t (a grandfather clock shaped like an alligator!). Invariably, this would lead to scenes with grimacing octogenarians saying things like, “Well Pat, I guess I’ll take the Vespa for $5200.”

Or, in Clementine’s case, “I guess I’ll take the hose repair kit for 60¢.” Because even if we’re in a hardware store, if she has money in her pocket, she has to spend it.

I once stood at a pharmacy counter (waiting, I must confess, while the pharmacist checked to see if they had anything cheaper than generic) and watched as Clementine scoured the aisles of four-legged canes, toilet lifts and orthopaedic shoe inserts in search of something in her price range. And then, since her price range consisted of the nickel she had found on the way into the store, watched as she consoled herself with a handful of free pamphlets on such edifying topics as “Alzheimer’s and You” and “Know Your Prostate.”

If only she had seen the pile of calendars by the register–she could have bought a whole handful for her nickel. After all, since it was March, they were practically free.

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