Monthly Archives: October 2007


Children these days know a lot of scary words–and I’m not talking about the ones they supposedly learned from watching cable TV or listening to Marilyn Manson. (Nice try, but trust me: no one believes they learned it anywhere but from you.) No, the scary words I am thinking about are the ones like oops (uttered just after you have forbidden the use of your Grandmother’s bone china tea set for a Teddy Bear picnic), I think I was supposed to give this to you last week (spoken in a rush all as one word while holding a crumpled memo detailing some vitally important meeting or event that occurred the night before), and maybe (as in “Did you remember to put your rat back in his cage like I asked you to?” “Um, maybe.”). But, when it comes right down to it, there is only one word that is absolutely guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of every parent, every time, and that word is nuthin–especially when it is uttered in response to that most common of parental questions: “What’s going on in there?”

For example: say your child runs into the kitchen and hurriedly grabs the broom and dustpan (items that have heretofore been regarded by this child as some sort of quaint decoration, like the flat irons and washboards that adorn the walls of Cracker Barrel-type establishments). Shocked at their sudden (and desperate) interest in the domestic arts, you ask them “What’s going on?” only to hear a breezy (or is it breathless?) nuthin. The same is also true when your child suddenly “needs” a six foot strip of paper towels (“What for?” “Nuthin”), or demands that all of the doors and windows be shut at once (Why?” “So, you know, nuthin like, gets out.”). (Conversely, a sudden request that all the doors and windows be opened so that “Nuthin, you know, like, stays in” can be equally distressing.)

Now, it may be that I am not remembering my own childhood correctly (something my mother insists on pointing out to me after nearly every column), but it seems to me that nuthin is very much a product of this generation: my generation’s go-to words were I dunno and not me (immortalized by Bil Keane as the hard-working little poltergeists who wreak household havoc). And, again, maybe my memory is faulty, but it also seems to me that nuthin is a much more sinister fellow than either not me or I dunno, because, on some level, nuthin is a complete denial of reality. Think about it: how can there be nothing going on? After all, even when the day comes that the Universe is tottering along on its last legs, it will still be actively decaying. Ok, maybe that’s a little extreme, but you get my point: there is always something going on.

And, at least with I dunno and not me, there is the admission of such: lamps are being broken, muddy footprints are being made–we just don’t know by whom. With nuthin however, not only is there a complete denial of anything untoward going on, there is, in the sullenly defensive tone in which it is issued, a sneering disbelief that anything is being accused in the first place. Nuthin is always spoken in the righteously indignant tone of one who must put up, yet again, with being falsely accused. (Much like the way the poor guy who shows up at the airport wearing his favorite ticking backpack must once again put up with being strip-searched.)

Still, I suppose that I dunno, not me, and even nuthin aren’t really the scariest words that children know. After all, they could just answer the question “what’s going on in there?” with the truth–and that’s a prospect that I find to be truly terrifying.

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Whenever people talk about the benefits of traveling, they always seem to note how “broadening” it is; how it opens your eyes to all of the world’s diversity and differences. And though that is true, what I enjoy most about traveling is not so much seeing the world’s differences, but rather its “samenesses”. There is nothing quite like being halfway around the world and seeing someone having the exact same problems I have (albeit in a different language) for making me feel–for one brief, shining moment–that, just maybe, I am not completely crazy.

This is especially true when it comes to parenting: so much of parenting happens behind closed doors that it soon becomes easy to believe that your children alone are the only ones who are ill-mannered, whiny, spoiled rotten, and, in general, insufferable, and that all other families are models of smooth running perfection.

Witness a family on vacation, however–when the thin veneer of civilization is stripped from even the most Stepford of families–and you will see that they are all neurotic, dysfunctional and socially backwards–in other words, just like yours. Travel far enough, and you’ll even see that this is true for the very same families to which we are so often held up to, and found lacking: the European family.

Call me jingoistic, but after years of being made to feel inferior about nearly every aspect of American parenting–the schools our kids attend, the food they eat, the TV shows they watch–there is just something immensely gratifying about the sight of a sullen, iPod-clutching teenager getting chewed out for her rotten attitude in Italian.

Our last trip was perfect for voyeurism of this sort, since we were traveling in open-topped Land Rovers that functioned as little mobile living rooms on wheels. Even though we were not actually a part of those other families, when our small herds of Land Rovers jockeyed with each other for better and better viewing positions on the Serengeti we could not help but eavesdrop on their domestic squabbles, so that before long we were privy to not only the above-mentioned Italian scolding, but also cases of English whining, French shushing, and, I’m not sure, but I think Japanese “I’m going to count to ten”-ing as well.

And then, of course, there were the elephants. One day, while waiting for a family of elephants to cross the road in front of us I witnessed a parenting scene so eerily familiar I almost thought I was experiencing deja vu. During the crossing–perhaps due to some earlier, unwitnessed tiff, but more likely just due to general orneriness–a young (approximately 8 years old, according to our guide) elephant decided that a dangerous road crossing was the perfect time to give another, even younger (3 to 4 years old) elephant a swift slap with his trunk. This played out just like it would in a human family, with the baby elephant yelping and caterwauling like it was being stuck all over with knives, and the older one affecting the elephant version of the “What did I do?” face.

That’s when the older female who had just crossed the road in front of them executed a quick about face, charged back into the road and issued a very loud, and very exasperated warning trumpet as she hustled the wayward children off the road. And though I no more claim to speak elephant than I do Japanese, I’m fairly certain that her aggrieved roar translated into something like: “I have had it with you kids. So help me, I will pull this migration over right now–do you hear me?”

That, together with the Babel of scoldings I had been hearing throughout the day, was almost enough to convince me that we really are all the same–in fact, with some elephant-sized iPods I’m sure all of our children could learn to sulk as one.

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A few weeks ago, there was a newspaper column encouraging people to love their animal neighbors–even the stinky and destructive ones (i.e., skunks and raccoons)–because, “after all, they were here first.” I don’t know where that writer lives, but as for myself I live in a house that is one-hundred-plus years old; the only way our resident skunks and raccoons could have been here first is if they are the animal versions of Jack LaLanne.

Still, I understood her point (“Why can’t we all just get along?”), and can even recall a time in my life when I, too, would have proposed interspecies tolerance for all. That, however, was before the incident that has come to be known as “The Stinking.”

That’s right: Dude–we got skunk’d.

By “we” I mean my entire house–all one-hundred-plus years of it. Every nook, every cranny, and every single item inside of it–including every man, woman and child. (Especially child, but more of that later). And what did we do to deserve this? Not a thing. In fact, in all likelihood the vengeful sprayer was probably fighting with one of his/her own companions in the crawl space under our house. (This begs the question: if even the skunks can’t stand being around each other, how am I supposed to?) And so: one minute I was lying in my bed asleep, and the next thing I knew I was trying to wake myself up enough to not throw up.

I tried to go back to sleep, but no matter how much I willed my sleeping self to breathe through my mouth I still ended up taking in a nice big snootful every time I fell back asleep–which meant that I still ended up waking up with the urge to hurl. (And for all of you people out there who are saying, “Hey, I kind of like the smell of skunk,” know this: what might be considered a “smell” as you drive past it on the open highway becomes an absolute physical “presence” when trapped in the confines of a small house). Trying to cover up the stench didn’t work, either: neither air freshener nor incense were strong enough to stand up to the “eau de p.u.,” and even applying various “anti-funk” products directly to my nostrils didn’t help (by the time the night was over I had shoved more stuff up my nose than Kate Moss at an after-hours Oscar party). In the end I decided that, as with all wounds (even the olfactory ones), the only thing that was really going to work was time.

Or so I thought.

Five hours later I sent what I considered to be a relatively stink-free Clementine and Clyde off to school. It was approximately fifteen minutes after that that I received a call telling me to come pick up Clyde because he, “smelled too bad to stay at school.” (Clementine, being older and sneakier, obviously used her talent for faking wide-eyed innocence to throw the school bloodhounds “off the scent,” as it were.)

Now, for many children, being sent home because they smelled bad would be a one way ticket to a lifetime of therapy; Clyde, on the other hand–the boy who bops through life as if he has a continuos loop of “Don’t Worry; Be Happy,” running through his head–was fine. I, however–faced with the prospect of foregoing a much-needed nap in favor of spending the day with a five-year-old who was quite excited to have gotten out of school early–was less so. Which helped strengthen my resolve to immediately deal with the skunk situation–permanently. Don’t worry, I didn’t do anything drastic: I just got a trap that catches them alive so that they can be “relocated” humanely. Now all I need is the address of a certain “love thy neighbor” animal columnist, and I’ll be all set.

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Call of the Wild

The first crisp days of Autumn always remind me that it is time once again for hunting season: backpack hunting season, that is. Of course, by “hunting” I don’t just mean going to the store and buying a new backpack–that would be like celebrating the arrival of your elk tag with a trip to the local butcher shop–but instead actually hunting and trapping your very own wild backpack–or, at least, a feral one, since the focus of a backpack hunt is usually none other than bacpackus domesticus, also known as “that backpack I just bought you last year.”

Don’t think for a minute though that feral backpack hunting is any less difficult than stalking and catching one that has been born and raised in the wild; oftentimes, due to the feral backpack’s familiarity with houses and household routines, a feral backpack will be the more elusive of the two. Take, for example, the hunter’s first step: studying the backpack’s habits and preferences in order to get a sense of the most likely location for their prey’s lair. In the case of a wild backpack you will usually be able to find a witness/child who can tell you the answers to questions such as “Where did you last see it?”; “Did it come home from school with you?” and “Did you take it on your last sleepover?”; the feral backpack, however–knowing that a successful answer to any one of these questions will most likely result in its eventual capture–will have made sure to have surrounded its movements in a haze of murky obfuscation, like a squid departing in a puff of ink, so that the most you can expect to get out of any potential witnesses will be an uncertain, “Um, maybe…I guess.”

Not that the lack of good eyewitness reports will deter the serious hunter, but it will mean that they will now have to tediously check all the places backpacks have been known to congregate, including underneath the front seat of the car, in a little brother’s room, trampled into a muddy heap next to the swing set, under the bed, and sometimes, in a brilliant piece of reverse psychology, hanging on the hook where they belong.

Of course, once you locate the backpack’s lair you still have to somehow entice it out into the open–another thing that is more difficult with a canny feral backpack than with its wild cousin. Some people believe that this is because some backpacks–most likely the ones owned by children who constantly practice “catch and release” style backpack ownership–have been “caught” so many times they now know every single one of the hunter’s tricks. In fact, sometimes a feral backpack will have become so wise that the only way to recapture it is through the thoroughly unsportsmanlike practice of setting out live bait–usually a new backpack purchased especially for this reason. (The thinking is that when the feral backpack sees the new one it will attempt to bring the domesticated one into its harem, much like mustangs of the open range.)

A slightly less reviled form of “baiting” is to put out a three-week old half-eaten sandwich. While backpacks do not actually consume sandwiches (they live on completed homework assignments and signed permission slips), they are naturally curious creatures whose inquisitiveness will compel them to investigate and hoard the sandwich. (There have been documented case where scientists have found backpacks floating off the coast of Greenland that contained over 400 half-eaten sandwiches, some of them even being liverwurst–a substance that no child has willingly put on their sandwich in the last 75 years.)

Of course, a good backpack hunter also knows that no backpack will stay caught forever; you can no more own a backpack than you can own the Earth. They are, instead, merely borrowed from our children. Or from Staples. Depends on where you shop.

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