Monthly Archives: September 2007


I’ve always liked the word squabble: it sounds like it should be used to describe a bunch of ducks at a suburban lake fighting over a stale piece of Wonderbread–lots of noise and feathers over something that is, essentially, nothing. In other words: lots of sound, lots of fury, and lots of signifying nothing. Which is also what makes it the perfect word to describe what my children do from the moment they get up in the morning to the time they pass out in front of the TV at night.

There really isn’t any other word for what they do. You could not call it arguing, because the word argue, despite its Jerry Springer taint, still holds some degree of respectability. After all, arguments are what lawyers make during the opening and closing phase of a trial, and even though nine times out of ten those trials are about something just as inconsequential as avian Wonderbread ownership, they still at least have the potential to be about matters of life and death. This, I assure you, can never be said about the topics Clementine and Clyde have under discussion.

For much the same reason, debate is also out–unless debate teams have changed so dramatically in the years since I was in college that they now include a period during which you have 10 seconds to pummel your opponent until he or she concedes your point. (Again, Jerry Springer notwithstanding.)

Even the word bicker is not adequate, since, despite all of its connotations of mindless, unimportant back-and-forth sparring, it also is almost always associated with married couples, couples who–bizarre as it may seem–have actually chosen to be together in the midst of their arguing. Clementine and Clyde, however, have made it abundantly clear that, for them, this is not the case; in fact, were the entire population of the world to line up as for one gigantic game of kickball in which they were the captains, I have no doubt that each one would pick the other dead last.

So, until a better word comes along, the word for what they do is definitely squabble. No other word comes so close to expressing the sheer meaninglessness of their confrontations, as well as the high level of annoyance experienced by anyone who has to listen to them. I tried to explain this to my husband once, when, after taking note of my frazzled state at the end of the day, he infuriatingly told me to “just ignore them.”

Right. Like I can ignore two people who can turn a simple game of 20 Questions into 20 Squabbles by disagreeing about whether a chicken is a vegetable, or a mineral. (Argument #1: Since Mom says eating a chicken doesn’t really count as eating meat, it is obviously a vegetable. Argument #2: Since people make nuggets out of them, they must be a mineral–like gold.) Ignoring an argument like that would be like trying to ignore the two girls next to you on the ski lift who are having a heated debate about which live Phish tape is the best. It would be like trying to ignore the people behind you at the movies while they argued over which was better: The DaVinci Code or Interview with a Vampire. It would be like trying to ignore your baristas as they argued whether marijuana should be legalized because “da birds eat it” or because “hemp is mentioned in the Bible.” In other words, it would be impossible: at some point your brain simply compels you to put an end to it all by screaming out, “Enough already: you’re both idiots, ok?”

Not that verbal pleas to cease and desist ever work against inane arguments anyway; it’s like trying to get the ducks to stop fighting by throwing more bread at them. Although–who knows–throwing Wonderbread just might work with children.

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The Fugitive

There used to be an old TV show called The Fugitive, the premise of which was that, in order to prove his innocence, the falsely accused eponymous hero had to find his wife’s “real” killer, a man known simply as “the one-armed man.” (No, he didn’t look for him on all the golf courses in Florida–this was pre-O.J.). Of course, just like in the O.J. case, no one ever really believed The Fugitive, either–especially the part about the one-armed man.

And who could blame them? After all, every aspect of his story (I’m talking about The Fugitive here–I’ll leave O.J. alone for a while) seemed wholly implausible–pure Hollywood fabrication. Or, at least it did–until recently. That’s when we began to experience something very similar in our own house. In our case, however, instead of being plagued by a nefarious one-armed murderer, we have been haunted by his less fortunate younger brother: the one-legged shoe thief.

I know: it sounds bizarre, but, having examined all the evidence I can come to no other conclusion than that we must be the victims of a one-legged bandit: how else could you explain the fact that our house is constantly the setting for “The Mysterious Case of the Disappearing Shoe”?

There’s really no other explanation; after all, no one in their right mind would ever take off just one shoe, walk around for a bit, and then take the other one off in a completely different location–would they? No, of course they wouldn’t, which means that, logically, where you find one shoe, you should also be able find the other, just as when you are missing one shoe, you should also be missing the other. In our house, however, this is seldom the case–or, at least it isn’t the case for my daughter, Clementine, who so far has been the sole victim of the one-legged bandit.

Of course, the less open-minded among you might be tempted to say that this only goes to prove that it is not a mysterious one-legged foot-fetishist on the prowl, but rather a neglectful child; to you I can only reply that, on the contrary, this simply narrows down the potential list of one-legged subjects to those who wear a girls size 3.

You’d think, with a physical description like that, our man would be easy enough to nab: all we would have to do once we had noticed the theft of yet another shoe would be to canvas the neighborhood, stopping to question all of the one-legged men wearing one small pink flip-flop (or baseball cleat, or Doc Marten). This, however, is wishful thinking: I’m sure that one wouldn’t get very far in the world of disabled thievery without being at least a little bit clever; in other words, no one-legged man worth his crutch would be foolish enough to be caught in the vicinity of his crime with his loot still on him. Not that it would matter much if he did, since our man is also clever enough to only strike at the most hectic time of day–right in the middle of the before school rush– when, thanks to the tsunami of book bags, half-eaten lunches and unsigned permission slips that surge back and forth throughout the house all morning, he is able to slip in and out completely undetected.

Still, even without being caught in the act, or even in the neighborhood, you would think that in a town of this size it would be easy to catch someone whose only leg ended in a little-girl-sized foot. The fact that we haven’t means that he must be holing up somewhere where he can pass unnoticed (perhaps by spending the majority of his time sitting down), and presumably one where odd footwear doesn’t look out of place.

Maybe O.J. was on to something with all those golf courses after all.

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Little Five

In Hemingway’s time, big game hunters went to Africa looking to bag the “Big Five”–elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and cape buffalo, and even though nowadays most people travel to Africa armed with cameras instead of carbines, the goal remains essentially the same: to “shoot” the Big Five. And then, of course, there’s Clyde.

This summer, while the rest of my family spent their days scanning the Serengeti for signs of wildlife, Clyde was content to limit his horizons to the back seat of the Land Rover. There he could usually be found playing happily with whatever he had managed to scrounge out of our bags that day, with his favorite being the handful of leftover euro coins from a European layover on the way to Tanzania.

“Clyde, look at the elephant!” we’d say, as an elephant passed so closely to our truck that we could feel the rumble of its chest; Clyde, however, would be too engrossed in some serious conversation his coins were having with each other to even bother looking up. (Question: what do euros talk about when they’re not at home? My first thought was that they would make smug little self-congratulatory remarks to each other about “coalitions of the willing” and “freedom fries,” but, as it turns out, they tended to talk about pretty much the same things all inanimate objects talk about in Clyde’s hands: who they’re going to fight.)

Clyde displayed the same utter lack of interest when we encountered cheetahs, giraffes, zebras and even lions. Finally, after I had begun to worry that the only way Clyde was ever going to view any wildlife on this trip would be if he was dragged along behind the truck as bait, Clyde’s interest in game spotting was unexpectedly piqued by the sight of an animal standing right outside the car window. Why “unexpectedly?” Because not only did Clyde make his sighting when the rest of us weren’t even looking for game (we were passing through a small village), but also because of the nature of the game he ended up spotting: it was a chicken.

“Did you see that?” Clyde asked us excitedly as we passed by someone’s yard. “A chicken!”

That was when we first realized that, unlike 99.9% of the tourists who go on safari, Clyde had set his sights a little bit lower than the coveted “Big Five”–Clyde was looking for the “Little Five.”

As far as we can tell, the little five is made up of chickens, cows, mice, toads, and those small, nondescript birds that birders the world over refer to as “LBJ’s,” or, “little brown jobbies.” However, despite the lack of glamour attached to his little five, Clyde’s commitment to finding them was so complete that, when we were especially desperate to get Clyde to look at something (say a cheetah stalking a gazelle 10 feet away), we would lie, telling Clyde to “look over there–a cow.” Of course, we had to be careful not to overuse this particular ploy, since Clyde soon became annoyed with our appallingly bad animal identifications. “That’s not a cow–it’s an elephant,” he would say, annoyed that we had tricked him into seeing yet another exotic animal standing a few feet away from his head.

Of course, to Clyde’s credit, he did stick with his version of game viewing much longer than the rest of us stuck with ours. In fact, even after the safari ended and we were at our next stop he remained completely focused on adding to his list. Which would explain why, in the picture I have taken of Clementine and Clyde standing in front of a windmill outside Amsterdam, you can only see half of Clyde: the other half of him is busy dashing out of the frame, in hot pursuit of–what else–a chicken.

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All By Myself

Back in the days when my kids were small enough that I had to do (read: wipe) everything for them, I couldn’t wait for the day when they would finally come to me and say those five little magic words: “I can do it myself.” I pictured us–if not exactly sailing smoothly out of the door every morning–at least making steady daily progress towards that goal. What’s more, I saw those mornings in between the two stages of helplessness and self-sufficiency as being filled with scenes of youthful fumbling so charming that it would look like something straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t long after I had conceived of this delightful vision that the reality set in, and I learned that, when it comes to children, the words “I can do it myself” are usually only uttered in the final three minutes before we absolutely must be out of the door or else be irrevocably late for school, movies, kidney transplants, etc. This means that, although the picture of a child sitting haphazardly on the floor and struggling to put his new shoes on not only upside down but on the wrong foot as he chants “I can do it myself” may very well be Rockwellian, the truth is it soon becomes lost in the much larger, much more Daliesque vision of ticking clocks and an anxious mother dancing worriedly to and fro and saying, “Here…if you just…can I…maybe if we…” until finally, in a fit of frustration, she snatches the shoe from the offending party’s hand, shoves it on the offending party’s foot, and heads out the door, one very offended child in tow.

I know. I KNOW. These are the “teachable moments.” These are the times when I should dredge up my inner Andy Griffith (the Sheriff Taylor version, not the Matlock one–he’ll come in handy later, when they come home smelling of booze and cigarettes and try to pull off some crazy story about arriving at an intersection just in time to witness a tragic pile-up between a beer truck, a cigarette salesman, and, just possibly, a 1968 VW bus). These are the times when I need to exercise all of my saintly patience, knowing full well that my reward will come later in the form of never having to sue for visitation rights to see my grandkids. These are the times when I need to see that these are not only Rockwell moments, but Kodak and AT &T long-distance commercial moments combined. In other words, these are the times when I totally lose my cool.

Part of it is because, in order for a child to ever perform a task on their own, they must first be given instructions which have been broken down so thoroughly that, if you were to just add a few lines of code, could probably be used to program a computer. Take sewing. The other day Clementine wanted to sew a patch onto her favorite pair of jeans “all by herself;”she just needed a little help. First she needed “a little help” to find the needle. Then to find the thread. Then to find the needle threader. Then to learn how to use the threader. Then, after giving up on that, to find someone to thread the needle for her. Then to find a patch. Then to know where to put the needle. Then to know why the thread just pulled through. Then to know “what kind of knot” to put in the thread. Then to have someone else put the knot in for her… And so on.

By the time “she” was done I had put so much work into it–and received so little credit in return–that I felt like I had just produced a Paris Hilton album–and there’s not a thing that’s Rockwellian about that image.

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