Monthly Archives: November 2007

True Believer I

Although, technically he is still (and always will be) my baby, my son Clyde is now six and a half years old, which makes me worry that soon the day will come when he finds out the truth about Santa Claus. (He already knows about the Easter Bunny, although I think I might have explained it to him in such a way that he now believes that after three days the Easter Bunny comes out of his cave, and if he sees his shadow he then goes back inside and eats ham for another six weeks–or something like that. Obviously, Easter brunch mimosas and explaining early man’s attempt to explain the return of Spring don’t mix.) When it comes to Santa, however, I think that we’re still cool: Clyde is still one of the faithful.

This was not something we ever had to worry about with his sister, Clementine–long before we ever considered it, she was gently informing us that “Santa Claus is just a story people tell because it makes them happy.” She also told us, years before she ever lost her first tooth, that, even though she knew the tooth fairy wasn’t real, when the time did come she would still be expecting the usual dollar (she did allow that placing it under the pillow, however, was optional). But then again, Clementine–just like George Bailey–was “born older.” Not so with Clyde.

Whereas Clementine’s loss of faith came too early for my tastes (I still miss those days when I could get compliance by pretending to call Santa and telling him, “Better not come this year, old pal: looks like somebody just can’t be good”); with Clyde, on the other hand, I sometimes get the feeling that he will be the only kid in junior high who not only still believes in the jolly old elf, but drops a letter addressed to the North Pole into the mailbox every December as well.

The hard truth is that while Clementine is the soul of cynicism, Clyde is the very essence of belief–a condition that has led to some very tricky times in our household, since, as everyone knows, there is nothing a cynic enjoys quite so much as debunking the cherished tenets of the true believer.

And the fact is that it would be far too easy for her to do this, because, for all of his powers of true belief, the one thing Clyde believes in the most is that his older sister knows absolutely everything. And so, as Clyde’s list of Santa Claus questions gets more and more specific (“How will he get into our house if we don’t have a chimney?” “How can there be two Santas in the same parade?” “Why didn’t he bring me wings like I asked for last year?”), I can almost feel the moment approaching when Clementine will gleefully disabuse him of his last shred of faith. For me, on the outside looking in, it is like Clementine is a sharp little pin, and Clyde’s belief is this large, tempting balloon. And it is only my threats of dire retribution that are keeping the two apart.

Not that I’ll have to keep them apart for much longer: even though so far Clyde has been so content with my vague answers to his Santa Claus questions that sometimes I’m afraid he’ll grow up to be a U.N. monitor in Burma or something (“Where did all these toys come from?” “Um, some people believe that Santa’s elves make them in his workshop?”), I know the day is soon coming when he’ll demand some firmer answers. I just hope that when that day does come I will have not yet had my third spiked eggnog. Otherwise he might end up thinking that Santa Claus was born in a manger–and that his first visitors were a couple of Druids.

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Violins Against Children

To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a case of a child actually dying from being forced to take music lessons. (Of course, now that I am committing this to paper I can nearly guarantee that I will soon start receiving a slew of letters all complaining about my lack of sensitivity to the musically injured, starting with the woman whose buck-toothed daughter accidentally inhaled her piccolo and finishing with the guy whose brother drowned when he neglected to clean out the spit valve on his tuba.) Ok then, let me rephrase: freak accidents aside, no child has ever been seriously harmed by practicing a musical instrument. (Ah, but what about the zither, you say? I hear that if you practice a zither with the wrong posture you can end up crippled for life.) Enough already–I’m sticking with my original argument: it ain’t gonna kill you to practice your violin for fifteen minutes a day. Or at least that’s what I tell my children.

Between Clementine and Clyde, our family has been taking violin lessons at NAU for the past seven years, which, although it may only be equivalent to 49 years in a dog’s life, is the same as 523 years in the life of a Suzuki mother. This means that according to all methods of calculation I should now be dead 10 times over, or at the very least be leading a shadow existence as a head in a jar somewhere. Somehow, though, life goes on.

It hasn’t always been easy (actually, it hasn’t ever been easy). Fortunately, however, with Clementine I got to experience the very worst of it at the very first of it: how well I remember the sight of a cute little four-year-old Clementine lying on the floor with her tiny little violin, pathetically clutching her head and moaning, “I wish I was dead! At least then I wouldn’t have to play the violin anymore.” Compared to that, Clyde’s feeble little protests (“I don’t remember signing up for this”) are almost charming.

And it hasn’t always been rewarding, either. Although, ever since we allowed her to give up on the classical pieces entirely and concentrate on fiddle tunes Clementine has begun to make excellent progress, back when she was still in the structured world of Suzuki we despaired of her ever advancing at all. In fact, I was convinced that she was destined to become the oldest living Book 1 student of all time. (As her fellow classmates grew up and moved on to Books 2, 3, 4 and even 5, and as their places were filled by a series of comparatively younger replacements, I felt as if I was seeing a real life version of Dazed and Confused, with Clementine in the Matthew McConnaughey role–“That’s what I love about these Book One kids, man. I get older and they stay the same age.”)

Many people (my husband first and foremost among them) have asked me why, since we obviously have no shortage of other stressors to fill our life, I insist on adding music lessons into the mix. To them I always reply that there was once a time (not that very long ago, actually), when people didn’t consider a person to be truly educated unless they had learned at least the basics of music–something that I still believe to be true.

And then, of course, there is something to be said for bowing to the inevitable: after all, what are the chances of a 4-year-old who melodramatically wishes for death developing into anything other than a 14-year-old who broods over the pointlessness of life as we know it? At least this way when the time comes (and it will) for Clementine to write morose little emo songs about broken hearts and dying, she’ll know exactly which key to write them in.

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If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a beggar.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t have a problem with homeless people, panhandlers, or even (for the most part) trustafarians spare-changing their way across the country to the next Rainbow Gathering. I have no problem with people asking me for something, even when it’s something I don’t particularly want to give. I don’t even mind it when they are a little pushy: there used to be an older women who hung around downtown Flagstaff who was not just pushy; she was downright demanding. Her schtick was to march up to you on the sidewalk, and–glaring as if you, personally, were the one to blame for all her troubles–thrust her open palm up under your face in a silent “request” for spare change. Once you had placed the coins in her hand (you almost always did), she would check them, and if you hadn’t put in enough she would repeat the whole process over and over again until you had met her quota. And like I said, I was fine with that: at least she hit you up silently, which, compared to some of the improbable hard-luck stories the other downtown regulars felt compelled to share, was a blessedly peaceful approach.

The other nice thing about her approach was that, despite all of her demanding ways, she still knew how to take “no” for an answer: on those few occasions when I didn’t give her anything–because I didn’t have anything to give–she didn’t push it. As demanding as she was, when it came right down to it she always seemed to recognize a sincere “no.”

It’s been years now since I last saw her, and–given her advanced age then–I doubt that I ever will again. This is too bad, because recently I have come to the conclusion that I would gladly give her all of my pocket change from now until the end of time if only she would teach my children silent begging and the art of accepting “no.”

Come to think of it, I might even toss in a few bills: it would still be a small price to pay to never again have to hear the word pleeeeeeeeeeeeeese.

I’m not sure when it happened, but somehow pleeese has become the go-to word in my house for begging. With no encouragement (I swear) on my part, pleeese has taken on the mythic stature of the Masonic handshake; for some reason my children seem to believe that it is the key that will open every door (including the door to puppy ownership, apparently). This, even though–judging from the amount of verbal jiggling its users employ (“Pleese? Puh-leeze? Plees-plees-plees-plees-pleeese?”)–it would seem to be an ill-fitting key at best.

Perhaps it is because of its reputation as one of “the magic words;” however, what its users don’t seem to realize is that the word that holds the magic is please; pleeese on the other hand doesn’t even qualify as a real word–it’s more of a menacing noise, sort of like the whine of an engine in the wrong gear. It is also one of those sounds that gets its power to annoy from its unpredictability: rising and falling like the barking of a million excited Chihuahuas, it is designed to go directly to the lizard portion of our brain and elicits a response of: “Give them what they want; give them anything, just make that noise stop.”

Except that it doesn’t work. Or, at least it doesn’t work 99.9% of the time. (I swear.) Maybe its like my husband once said when I asked him why it was that some guys would hit on every single woman in the bar: “Because it only takes one yes.” I’m guessing, though, that the “one yes” didn’t come about in response to pleeese.

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Fish Stick

This story has it’s beginnings way back in 2003, when my then six-year-old daughter, Clementine, lost her pet Beta fish, Purpley. (In case you were wondering, by “lost” I mean that Purpley died. I know that most of the time this would be obvious, but in cases involving Clementine–the girl famous the world over for her ability to leave the house wearing two shoes and come back wearing only one–a certain amount of clarification does seem to be the order of the day.)

Now, when it comes to dead pet disposal, I am a fan of the “porcelain burial at sea” method: it’s quick, it’s clean, and, for a fish, it’s appropriate. Clementine, however, is–for such matters at least–a strict traditionalist: for her it was a shoe box (or, in Purpley’s case, a matchbox) or nothing. And therein lay the problem.

You see, while all deaths are untimely, Purpley’s death had come at an especially inopportune time for us: we were right in the middle of trying to sell our house. And while I wasn’t too worried about what potential buyers might think if they came upon a fish graveyard before the sale (if they found the remains we could always just tell them that Purpley’s corpse was a really bad likeness of St. Joseph), I was a little bit worried about what might happen afterwards. After all, it was hard to imagine a funeral conservative such as Clementine willingly foregoing all of the usual rituals that accompany grief: the erecting of memorials, the annual visits to the graveyard–maybe even the sharing of “a wee dram” with some friends as they toasted the memory of “good ol’ Purpley.” And, while having a dead fish in your back yard might still be considered on the edge of acceptable, having a morbid little girl hanging out would not be.

Given these circumstances, I decided to go the Ted Williams route: I stuck the late Purpley in a baggie in the freezer and moved him with us into our new home. It wasn’t meant to be a permanent arrangement–I had every intention of giving him a proper burial–right up until the very moment when I forgot all about him.

Flash forward to 2007: I’m finally throwing out the dozen or so black frozen bananas lining the bottom of my freezer that we also moved with (twice, according to my husband, who– when I point out that, no, actually that was two different sets of five-year-old frozen bananas– gives me a look that makes the one he gave to the black bananas practically affectionate by comparison), when I come across a baggie holding what appears to be a small blue paint chip and suddenly realize that I have just discovered the lost tomb of Purpley. Now what?

Do I show it to Clementine so that we can hold the long-delayed funeral services, knowing that if I do I will likely be opening the door to a whole new round of grieving–not to mention the accusations of neglect. (“He was in there for four years? You said we would bury him right away–I’ve eaten fish sticks out of that freezer!”)

Or do I give him a secret burial, praying that she won’t remember his neglected burial years later in the middle of a therapy session and wind up accusing me of leaving Purpley behind. (“But I kept him for four years!” “Oh yeah? Prove it.”)

In the end, I decided that indecision was my best decision; I stuck Purpley back in the freezer from whence he came. And just to make sure that no one else will ever find him, I put some overripe bananas on top of his hiding spot. I don’t have the time right now, but someday those bananas are going to make some awesome banana bread.

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Clementine Scissorhands

In physics, there is a field of study called particle physics that is concerned with breaking matter down into its smallest parts. One of the ways in which they do this is through a particle accelerator, a device which speeds subatomic particles up so fast that when they collide they (hopefully) break apart into even smaller components. Unfortunately for most particle physicists, though, particle accelerators tend to cost a whole lot of money–money that the government would much rather spend on vital programs like the creation of federally funded foot-tapping-free zones. Fortunately for those same poverty-stricken scientists, however, there is a solution to this problem, one that will keep both the scientists and the anti-toe-tapping lobby equally happy: simply give my daughter, Clementine, a nice new pair of scissors.

That’s right: an ordinary pair of scissors: once Clementine has a pair of these in her hands, she is unstoppable. Really, you can’t imagine the havoc she is capable of creating with this one simple tool: forget all of your personal horror stories about your own child’s DIY haircuts and neighborhood dog make overs–if Clementine were to be given enough time with a pair of scissors, the world would ultimately be reduced to atoms–one snip at a time.

In this I believe that she is unique: although a lot of what I write about in this column is universal, I have yet to meet another parent whose ten year-old daughter is a burgeoning particle physicist (and an old school one, at that). I have also yet to meet another parent who daily has to wade through a veritable snowdrift of dismembered t-shirts, Swiss-cheesed pajama bottoms and unraveled scarves, or one who, like I, feels like they are constantly living in a sequel to Edward Scissorhands. (Not that there aren’t plenty of mothers who wouldn’t gladly invite Johnny Depp into their houses to film said sequel–myself included). And while of course I have met other parents that worry that their child will someday end up working in a windowless cubicle, I have yet to meet the one who worries–as I do–that it will be because their daughter has been given employment in that office as a human paper shredder.

The logical solution, of course, would be to remove all of the scissors from our house; however, besides the fact that I don’t particularly wish to live in a house where I have to gnaw my way into every package of tortillas, the fact is that Clementine does not really even need a pair of scissors to perform her experiments: in a pinch, some strong fingernails and a sharp set of teeth have always served her just as well.

I suppose this could mean that Clementine is on the verge of becoming one of those scissor artists–the kind that cut beautifully intricate pictures out of a single sheet of paper, but–judging from her current body of work–it would seem that if her scissoring lies in an artistic direction, it is in a more Abstract one (“The 4 million pieces of paper you see lying on the ground in front of you represent Man’s Inhumanity to Man–or Man’s Inability to Get the Trash to the Curb for the Third Week in a Row–take your pick.”)

True, there is always the possibility of a career as a real particle physicist someday–who knows, one day she may make the discovery that will change the world as we know it.

Then again, she could just as easily end up as an extra on the set of the above-mentioned Edward Scissorhands sequel. Let’s see: ground-breaking scientist or the chance to be in the same room with Johnny Depp? I guess only time will tell if she makes the right choice. (And if, when she does, she takes me along with her to the set.)

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