Monthly Archives: May 2007

No Fear

Some people have children that are afraid of everything: roller coasters, strangers, lightning, the dark. They don’t know how lucky they are. Take the fear of getting lost, for example. Few are the parents who have never resorted to the old, “Well, Goodbye Timmy (Janey, Mikey, etc.)–we’re leaving now,” in an effort to hurry up their “doddler.” (Dawdle + toddler = “doddler.”)Usually, the fake leaving routine is enough to send all but the most recalcitrant “doddler” into a screaming panic of leg-clutching compliance; not so with my kids, however. With Clementine I can still remember the look of intense relief that flashed across her face after I finally lost my patience and threatened to abandon her in the library when she was two. It was a look that clearly said, “Well it’s about time–I thought you’d never leave.” With Clyde I would be lucky to get even that; in fact, I’m not completely sure he would even be aware that I had left in the first place. (As the library closed for the night he would probably just get in the first car that looked good to him, perhaps thinking briefly back to that other family of his for a moment, before even that little spark of memory was extinguished in the blaze of his new family’s big screen TV. With Clyde, it’s not that he doesn’t like us; it’s just that he also likes everyone–a lot.)

Then there is the fear of water. While other mothers have commented enviously about my children’s enthusiasm at the swimming pool, they would probably be slightly more appreciative of their own child’s hydrophobic hysterics if they knew how many times I’ve had to dive into a pool fully clothed in order to retrieve a blissfully drowning Clyde from the bottom of the deep end. Or if they knew that every trip to the beach involved plucking him out of the deepening water again, and again, and again, until even the lifeguard suggests that it might be time for us to call it a day.

And, of course, there is the whole scary movie thing. Some parents have professed shock that I can take my kids to such “scary” movies as Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. What they don’t realize is that this also means I can no longer play the “no, we can’t go see that; it’ll give you nightmares” card when it comes to getting out of seeing movies that I’m afraid to see. I’m still having nightmares from the last horror movie Clementine dragged me to, which featured not only creatures under the bed, but ones in the closet as well. (She pronounced it “Ok, but a little boring.” Meanwhile, six months later I’m still jumping into bed from four feet away and pulling my coat out of the closet by the very tip of its sleeve.)

Then there’s all the other little fears my children lack, fears which could logically also be classified as survival mechanisms. Fear of cars? Nonexistent. Fear of 400-ton locomotives rushing past at the train station? Nada. Fear of slipping off the edge of the Grand Canyon and falling 500 feet straight down? Zip. (Although it does seem that in this my children are somewhat in sync with nearly every other tourist who visits the Canyon–especially the European ones.)

Maybe that’s the key. Maybe it’s not so much that they are fearless, but rather that they are simply more European than us. That certainly would explain why Clementine is always so eager to see the back of us, as well as why she has steadfastly refused to join us in two family favorites: pork rinds and grits. Of course, it doesn’t much help when it comes to explaining Clyde’s drowning thing–or Clementine’s love of zombie movies. Or does it? Who knows: maybe it’s a British thing.

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People used to say that the Inuit had over 400 words for snow. Even though that story is now considered largely apocryphal, (and offensive to boot), it still sounds plausible to me. Let’s see: there’s “stinging little balls of hard snow” snow; “snow that piles up on your car seat when you forget to roll up the window at night” snow; “snow that absolutely dumps the day after they close down Snowbowl for the season” snow–I could come up with 400 just off the top of my head. For that matter, I’m sure I could come up with 400 descriptive titles for lots of things, not the least of which is the 400 things children can find to cry about. And topping that list would have to be “Inconsolable Crying: On the Untimely Death of a Favorite Balloon Animal.”

My son Clyde is especially affected by this particular form of crying, no doubt because, for some reason, he has decided that every balloon he encounters is going to be his new BFF. And, in a way, they are; unfortunately, though, to a balloon “forever” means approximately 45 minutes. Unless, of course, you’re talking about a balloon animal–then it means 45 seconds.

I just have to ask: what genius came up with the idea for balloon animals? Isn’t the trauma of losing a regular balloon bad enough–do we really need to make it worse by fashioning them into the shape of some sort of adorable creature? What’s next? Edible pets?

There is nothing–except perhaps rehab and the substances that get you there–that can give both the high highs and low lows that a balloon can give a child. No one is happier than a child who has just been handed a balloon; conversely, no one is sadder than one who has just seen their balloon pop. It is a sadness so deep, so real, that I would not be surprised to find that Germans (who may not have 400 different words for snow, but do have a word for just about everything else) don’t have a word just for that. (I would also be surprised to find out that word isn’t featured at least once in “99 Luftballoons.”)

Here’s the thing about balloons: they always pop. Always. What this means is that when a child is given a balloon, there is a 100% chance that they will end up miserable: there are no other possible outcomes. Let’s face it: it’s not like the balloon will one day hold an honored spot at their 50th wedding anniversary–it will be gone. Oh, I know–everything dies, everything falls apart, the Universe itself is in a constant state of decay–but, with most things, this all happens at a far enough remove that we can live in denial. Even a goldfish will live long enough to take the sting off of that final flush, but a balloon is nothing more than dharma writ large. Which, if you ask me, is a little much for a five-year old to take. Not that you have to be five to be devastated by the loss of your balloon. Realistically, only single celled amoeba would consider the life span of your average balloon to be sufficient, and even they would still have those moments when amoeba kid #1 inadvertently sits on amoeba kid #2’s balloon poodle mere nanoseconds after it was acquired from the Amoeba Balloon Lady, thereby sending amoeba kid #1 into a funk for the rest (approximately 7 seconds) of his life.

You’d think, knowing all this, that we as parents would give balloon artists the same wide berth we give to boxes marked “free kittens,” but we don’t; we actually encourage our children to go up and get their own shiny blue piece of latex misery.

Maybe that’s because of the 400 different words for “stupid,” word number one is “parent.”

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Free Range Children

A few weeks back I ran across a study which stated that “mothers who worked outside of the home in 2006 spent approximately 3 hours more per week ‘directly engaging’ with their children than their stay at home counterparts did in the 1970’s.” Of course, this piece of counter-intuition caused a fair amount of hand-wringing and consternation, especially among the “daycare=dysfunction” set, who wasted no time in pointing out that the 2006 mother got those extra three hours by cutting back on things like housekeeping and meal preparation. (They did admit, grudgingly, that perhaps some of those extra three hours came about because the modern mother also spent less time watching TV, sleeping, and spending time with her partner).

As someone who has experienced both of these extremes (not only was I a child in the 1970’s, but a mother in 2006), I can vouch for the study’s correctness concerning the cleaning and cooking part of the equation (when I was growing up, the only person I knew who had a house as ill-kept then as mine is now eventually got medication for her problems). And as for getting less sleep and watching less TV; well, my mother always seemed to do both at once, so I’m sure she was more efficient about it than I’ll ever be.

Not that issues of cleanliness and sleep deprivation really make all that much of a difference, though, because the way I see it the study itself is something of a red herring: instead of asking questions about which set of mothers spend more time “engaging” with their kids–the slovenly, hungry, sleepy, and largely celibate ones (us), or the–you know, good ones (them)–it should be asking which kind of mom did the kids prefer. Again, having been both a child and a mother, I’m going to have to say that they preferred the moms who “directly engage” with them the least.

Think about it: when you were growing up, wasn’t home the last place you wanted to be? Wasn’t home the place where you got yelled at for your muddy shoes, where a sibling/narc lurked around every cookie jar, and where the least bit of bored whining was greeted with the dreaded words, “If you’re bored, I can find you something to do”? Wouldn’t you always have rather been running free out in the woods, desert, alley or vacant lot; stepping on rusty nails, chasing down (mostly) non-poisonous snakes, building forts and falling out of trees?

When I hear the words “directly engaging with her children” all I can picture is some poor mother setting up the Monopoly board over and over again, or worse yet, supervising some highly structured craft “activity kit.” I also picture her equally miserable kids who–even though they might not know it, and even though they were the ones who begged and pleaded for both the Monopoly board and the “craft activity”–would much rather be dragging pieces of scrap lumber out into the back yard to build a “cat trap” that will eventually be tripped over by their dad in the middle of the night when he goes out to investigate the sounds of anguished yowling.

Again, not that I would expect them to understand this now: it took me years to appreciate my own “free range childhood,” where I not only learned that you don’t actually need stitches if you have enough butterfly bandages, but also what the inside of a golf ball looked like when you cracked it open in a vise. And I’m sure that, had my mother been “directly engaging” with us over the Monopoly board (as opposed to “watching” Marcus Welby, M.D.), I would never have found out the best way to hand over the rent when you are losing to an infuriatingly smug opponent (A.K.A. “your sister”): chew up the money and spit it at her.

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Free To Be

Sir Thomas More was of the opinion that pleasure must be more than the mere removal of pain: eating, drinking, sleeping–none of these could truly qualify as pleasurable, since none of these could ever be enjoyable without their twins of hunger, thirst, and fatigue. In theory I agree with him; in practice, however, it is quite another matter. It must be: how else other than pure pleasure could you describe the feeling you get when, in the five minutes between putting away the groceries and heading back out the door, you check your messages and find out that soccer/karate/hockey/baseball/violin/girl scout/cub scout(Am I forgetting something here? Oh, yeah–4-H) is cancelled for the evening?

When I find out that, despite all of my children’s extracurricular efforts to the contrary, I actually have an evening free to sit on the couch in my pajamas and watch Law & Order reruns, I am sure that my joy is equal to the joy I would feel if I got home to a message from the doctor saying, “Whoops–my bad–you don’t have terminal cancer after all.” Actually, I would probably be happier with a cancelled soccer game than the cancer misdiagnosis, because not even terminal illness can excuse you when it is your turn to bring snack.

The same, to a lesser degree, can be said about any children’s event you manage to sneak out of early, whether it is the two-hour long awards ceremony where your child actually gets their award first (and where you had the foresight to sit at the table nearest the door for a quick, unobtrusive exit), or the girl scout meeting where, either through a) being completely prepared and having your paperwork filled out ahead of time or, b) being completely unprepared and not having brought the right paperwork at all, you get to go home early.

Recently I attended a practice violin recital with my son Clyde where–in what was such a reversal of the usual laws of the Universe that I’m surprised the space/time continuum itself didn’t split apart and start issuing forth men in Victorian topcoats riding on dinosaurs–Clyde was one of the first to perform. Not only that, but after he played his piece there was just enough confusion up on stage to give us enough time–if we were quick about it–to make a hasty exit. (I know–very bad violin manners–but something came over me as I watched the next performer fumble about up on stage: I felt like a canary that had just spied the cage door swinging shut, and, not thinking about what might be waiting on the other side, jumped off of my perch and flew. “Run, Clyde, run,” I hissed as I gathered up purse, car keys, violin, violin case and bow in one untidy heap and sprinted for the door. “Run!”)

As we burst out into the parking lot, I felt giddy with my new freedom. The air smelled sweeter than it had when we had gone in, and I swear I could have reached into Clyde’s backpack, grabbed the mealiest, the waxiest, the left-in-the-bottom-of-the-lunch-box-for-three-days-iest apple, and it still would have tasted as sweet as the one that tempted Eve.

Bluebirds fluttering above my head, I nearly swept a passing NAU student up in am embrace that would have been worthy of a sailor on D-Day; as we pulled out of the parking lot with the sun still shining brightly in the sky (“Mommy, what’s that doing up there?”) I realized that tonight I would actually have time to make the kind of dinner that has become, for us, somewhat of a rarity–in other words, cooked.

It wasn’t until I found myself whistling the theme to The Great Escape, however, that I realized I was feeling exactly like Steve McQueen must have felt when he rode his stolen motorcycle across the German countryside: free.

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Micro Soccer Hooligans

Last year, my son Clyde played Micro Soccer for the first time, and while he loved every minute of it, there were definitely some minutes he loved more than others (snack time, for one). However, unlike his sister Clementine, who loved snack time so much that she was willing to give up playing in exchange for the promise of more of it (well, her version of playing, at least: lying on the sidelines and crying), Clyde actually enjoyed a few things about soccer that didn’t involve juice boxes and fruit roll-ups. Unfortunately, the one thing he enjoyed the most was the fighting. Or rather, as Clyde calls it, the “wrestle-fighting.”

“Wrestle-fighting” is the term Clyde uses to explain the full body tackle he likes to perform on the members of his own team, the opposite team, and, in fact, anybody who seems like they might be the least bit willing (as well as those who clearly are not). It is a type of play that almost always happens off of the field (particularly when the coach is trying to signal Clyde that it is his turn to come in), and involves tackling, yelling, and–usually–some sort of crying. It is by far his favorite part of soccer, and it is also what makes me believe that Clyde might actually have a future in the world of major league sports; unfortunately, it is also what makes me believe that this future will most likely take place off of the playing fields.

When your favorite thing about organized sports is that they give you the opportunity to pummel passers-by, it would seem that your life in the sporting world could only follow one of two paths: you could either be that three hundred pound guy who paints his face and shouts obscenities in the end zone, or you could be a soccer hooligan. Except for the fact that blood is a lot easier to get out of clothes than the combination of greasepaint and mustard, I think that of the two I prefer the former. For one thing, it’s a lot less expensive. (Sure, both the fanatic and the hooligan have to shell out big bucks to fly in and watch their teams compete, but only the hooligan has to budget in enough money for bail.)

So how do I steer Clyde in the right direction? If I wanted him to be a hooligan it would be easy: there’s plenty of kid’s activities that would help him develop the aggression and quick reflexes he needs to throw bottles at the opposing team’s hooligans. But what about being a fanatic? Unless I find a Dungeons and Dragons club for six-year olds, it’s unlikely that he’ll ever be able to develop the kind of deep-seated social awkwardness that he’ll need to fit in as a #1 fan.

For a while there I thought that maybe I could find a nice compromise, and sign him up for something like tennis, or cricket, but then I heard about that the recent Australian Tennis Open, where–in what was possibly the world’s first instance of tennis hooliganism–roving gangs of Serbian and Croatian nationals traveled to Australia in order to mix it up with each other before the match between their two respective countrymen.

Hearing about this gave me pause–obviously, it doesn’t matter what your sport is: when the spirit is willing, the fistfight will follow. After all, didn’t Bobby Fischer come pretty close to blows with Boris Spassky during the 1972 world chess championship? And wasn’t a cricket coach just murdered in the Caribbean? I’m sure that if you looked hard enough, you could even find examples of shady dealing in the competitive world of shuffleboard or badminton.

And then, who knows what some people would do to get their hands on a +14 Elvish crossbow of accuracy–maybe even take a full body tackle.

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